How Labour prevented a Tory majority

Labour's election defeat was severe. But incumbency, the length of the campaign, and a handful of paid organisers made the difference between a Tory majority and a hung parliament.

Our guest writer is Douglas Alexander, Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South

The Labour Party must learn from history and from its mistakes before it can move on. I gave a presentation on the 2010 General Election campaign at the Party conference last week, which aimed to highlight some of the key organisational lessons Labour must learn from our defeat in May.

Importantly, we must first recognise and accept the scale of our defeat. We lost 91 seats at the election, and suffered a national swing away from us of 6.5 per cent. Outside of our heartlands we were comprehensively rejected, holding only 10 seats out of 197 in the Southern regions in England. But the erosion in our support was not confined to these voters. Even where we retained seats in our heartlands we saw Labour majorities slashed.

However, amidst all the enveloping darkness there were also some points of light. Labour out-performed the national swing in Scotland – where there is still a strong cultural antipathy towards the Tories and a weak and discredited SNP government – and in London, where we benefited from the strength and the return of the BME vote in addition specific organisational factors.

While Labour began this campaign against the odds, after thirteen years in government, against a backdrop of difficult political circumstances and under challenging staff and funding constraints, we fought a campaign that denied the Conservatives the majority to which they felt entitled.

A big part of the answer to this paradox lies in the fact that effective organisation meant our share of the seats comfortably exceeded our share of the vote and while there is no single blueprint for effective campaigning there are lessons we must learn and adapt.

Despite even the expenses scandal, incumbency matters. In seats where our candidate was the Labour MP re-standing for the area the average swing away from Labour was two per cent lower than in seats where we did not have an incumbent MP.

Second is the strong correlation between local election results and electoral performance at the general election. Where we were less than five per cent behind our main opponent within the constituency boundaries at the last set of local elections, we went on to win 65 per cent of those Parliamentary seats.

The significance of the long campaign too must be accounted for. Between January and May this year, party members had spoken to 3.5 million voters on the doorstep and on the phone. In the top 100 seats for Voter ID, the average swing away from Labour was nearly two per cent lower than national average while in our top 10 seats for voter ID there was actually a swing towards Labour. If the long campaign matters in building relationships, the short campaign matters in maintaining momentum. In the final weeks of the campaign, our activists spoke to over 500,000 voters.

Given that 37 per cent of the electorate only made up their mind in the last week of the campaign and 15 per cent of those remained undecided until the final 24 hours it was those undecided voters that we managed to reach with our message in the final days that helped to prevent a Conservative majority.

Finally, the general election has given us statistical evidence about the enduring importance of paid organisers. In battleground seats where we had a paid organiser, there was a 2.73 per cent reduction in swing away from Labour. In seat after seat this was the difference between victory and defeat.

Our activist base is our strongest foundation on which to build for future which is why the Labour Party have launched Project Game Plan, to promote investment in membership training and sustained campaigning. Whilst the result in May was not what we hoped, the fact that we held so many of our most marginal seats and actually made gains is testament to our organisational capability and we can take great heart from a central insight of this campaign: that committed and engaged volunteers, campaigners and candidates still hold the key to victory.

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