In 2019, Leeds North West was one of the very few constituencies to see a swing towards Labour. Amongst heartbreaking losses and against the profoundly bleak backdrop of the national picture, we more than doubled our majority in what was previously a very marginal seat.
We know that there are a huge number of factors that contribute to any electoral outcome and there has been lots written about the national and demographic factors that were at play in December last year. We know that even the strongest campaign cannot guarantee success and this was proven by the countless remarkable but unrewarded efforts by activists around the country.
Talking about success is difficult. As activists and as Labour Party members, we are far more comfortable when talking about failure and the reasons for that failure. When we do talk about success in campaigning, we usually justify outcomes as the result of luck, demographics or the complete reduction of all nuance to one national issue. Further to this, there can be a perception that well run campaigns are the result of some mystical, opaque artistry that is only achieved by well seasoned campaigners with exceptional skill.
This leads to a culture of gatekeeping, backbiting and navel-gazing that, when mixed with your standard factional analysis of elections, prevents us from sharing good practice and learning from each other to make our campaigns collectively better. Every election, activists all over the country are finding new ways to develop campaigns, to innovate within well established techniques and to communicate more effectively with their electorate. We all know that these ideas have a tangible impact on results – be that winning a marginal, extending a majority or mitigating losses in difficult terrain. However, once the dust has settled, these practices often remain within the small group of campaigners in each individual CLP where they originated. We have not fostered a culture of intra-constituency communication and there are no well established forums for good ideas to be shared. This means that the staid, one size fits all methods of campaigning from centralised bodies remain unchallenged.
In Leeds North West, we looked at every aspect of campaigning and challenged ourselves to improve. We wanted to have the best leaflets we’ve ever designed, we wanted to have the most stakes ever put up, we wanted to have the most meaningful and persuasive conversations with our electorate; an electorate that we knew intimately. This meant we had to have a strategic approach, a meticulous plan and an energised and mobilised team to put it in motion. None of the techniques that we have written about in our pamphlet, Marginal Holds is particularly revolutionary or in and of themselves a silver bullet. But together, these small details, improvements and innovations, within a model that was defined by integrated thinking, routine and consistency built a formidable campaign machine. We believe that these are ideas and principles worth talking about.
This is not a self-aggrandising exercise aimed at proving that we were the cleverest operation in the country. This is not about big data or some new universally applicable fashion that we think everyone needs to adopt. This is a celebration of the craft of campaigning and an attempt to start a national conversation. We want to share good practice and amplify the efforts of the legions of grassroots campaigners that are the strength and the backbone of the Labour Party. We aimed to write the pamphlet that we wanted to read and hope that it will be the first of many written accounts of good, innovative campaigns. Lets reject the current culture within the Labour Party and create a network of activists determined to help each other win and build a movement ready to face the significant challenges ahead.
We hope that by reading our pamphlet you will come away with some good ideas that you can apply to the campaign that you’re running, be that a general, local or parish election. Ideas such as mapping out your constituency ahead of time, understanding and applying data, utilising consistent and clear messaging, and maximising volunteer deployment. That said, this is not simply a ‘how to’ guide but the story of how we approached the monumental task of planning, organising and delivering an effective campaign in the midst of a difficult winter election.
Marginal Holds will be launched with an online event hosted by Labour Society of Campaigners on Sunday 13th December at 7pm. To sign up, click here.
Nik Rutherford & Lauren McDonald were agent and organiser for Alex Sobel in Leeds North West during the 2019 General Election