The Oldham West and Royton by-election result, coming after and improving on the same constituency’s result in the General Election, was uncharted waters for partisans of the “working-class drift” theory: Labour didn’t lose votes to UKIP, but equally Labour didn’t win votes back from UKIP by playing their tunes. (If my reading of the General Election result is correct, there weren’t any great number of Labour votes to win back from UKIP.) So what was going on? The other stereotypes for explaining working-class Labour votes – the Popular Local Figure and the Deep Unthinking Loyalties – didn’t seem to fit either, in a constituency whose popular local figure had just died, and at a time when a new leader was making everyone think about whether they wanted to be loyal or not. On the doorstep, in fact, the answer often seemed to be ‘not’: recall Abby Tomlinson’s Tweets, quoted earlier.
— Michael Deacon (@MichaelPDeacon) November 29, 2015
And yet the vote went to Labour, in quite a big way. Why? we might well ask; we might even ask how?
I think Stephen Bush was looking in the right direction in his post-match analysis:
it could be that Labour’s North West operation simply used its activists very well – if your activists are spending a lot of time talking to firm Labour promises before the final days, they may be missing out on persuadable voters.
It was the North West that saw some of Labour’s best results in May 2015: gaining Wirral West and City of Chester against the tide. It may be that the reason why so many Labour members left Oldham convinced it would be tricky is because the campaign team sent them to exactly where they wanted them to go, meaning that on the day itself, they could be confident of only talking to cast-iron Labour voters.
The idea that the local party steered its activists towards the less likely prospects – thus making good use of whatever persuasive power those activists had, while at the same time guaranteeing that the activists themselves would think it was looking pretty rough – has an appealingly counter-intuitive, parsimonious appeal. But I wonder if the real explanation is simpler. Firstly, whichever direction these activists were being sent, there were an awful lot of them. Check this out:
Seven hundred volunteers! That’s a bit more than one for every hundred people on the electoral roll; if you think of it as one volunteer for every street in the constituency you won’t be far off. Perhaps the local party didn’t target them; perhaps they didn’t need to. If activists like Abby were, simply, put in the position of knocking on a hundred doors and asking everyone who answers if they’re voting Labour, it’s not surprising if they got a lot of No’s and slammed doors. In that situation the word “No” doesn’t necessarily mean “I have the fixed intention of voting for a party other than Labour or else not voting Labour at all” – the slammed door still less so. “No” may also mean “get off my doorstep”, “I don’t want to have this conversation now” or “I’m not having some fresh-faced youngster tell me how to vote”, among other things.
But all those interactions – including the ones that ended badly – had the effect of reminding somebody that there was an election on, that there was a Labour candidate standing, that voting Labour was something they could do. It’s called “getting out the vote” for a reason: there are lots of people who will make a free and rational choice to vote Labour if they find themselves in a polling station, but who may need a bit of help to dislodge them from the comforts of home for long enough to get there. Of course, there’s nothing particularly novel or left-wing about door-knocking; in that sense this was a perfectly ordinary, old-style Labour by-election win. But seven hundred is an awful lot of volunteers – and I’ve got a feeling that a large number of them wouldn’t have been there, wouldn’t even have been in the party, if anyone but Corbyn had won the leadership election. This influx of new recruits – along with an influx of returning ex-members, at least according to one of my local councillors – is Corbyn’s gift to the party; last Thursday we saw how valuable it can be.
So I wonder how many of the door-slammers and the “not with your leader” grumblers ended up voting Labour anyway – and how many would have been slightly less likely to do so if they hadn’t had that doorstep encounter. I also wonder if there’s some misreading of signals going on here, based on an underlying mismatch of political vocabularies. Tony Blair was, for better and worse, a charismatic leader – a figure who voters could identify with, and pin their hopes on, in fairly personalised terms. For Labour right-wingers who grew up under Blair, having a set of political beliefs and believing in a political leader are likely to be closely allied concepts. When someone with this background looks at Jeremy Corbyn, they see somebody who’s entirely without credibility as a leader and a set of ideas which they oppose. Again, the two things go together: a credible leader wouldn’t have those ideas; a politician with different ideas would have more credibility. So who knows whether Corbyn quoted Enver Hoxha because he’s a secret Stalinist, or just because it amused him – and who cares? It doesn’t matter; the two are the same thing, or might as well be. (It certainly doesn’t matter enough for it to be worth getting the story straight before printing it.)
I became a Labour supporter when I started caring about politics here and now, which was some time in my late teens. The leader of the Labour Party at the time was Jim Callaghan. It wasn’t until 1983 that Labour had leaders I could believe in, in Kinnock and Hattersley – and my belief in them didn’t last into 1984. I felt strongly about Tony Blair – by the time of the 1997 election I loathed him, and feared what he was going to do to the party and the country (oh yes I did). But he was the exception: towards every other leader from Callaghan to Miliband – including Kinnock after the shine had worn off – I’ve felt nothing stronger than tolerance and the faintest glimmer of hope that this time might be different. The idea of believing in them never crossed my mind. I wouldn’t say I believe in Corbyn, either, although I do approve of pretty much everything he’s done and said as leader (as well as liking his sense of humour and thinking he seems like a really nice bloke). But he’s not credible as a ‘presidential’ style of leader, and he’s not trying to be; he doesn’t believe in that kind of leadership. That’s OK, because neither do I.
And, I suspect, neither do a lot of the voters of Oldham West. They may think (unlike me) that Corbyn should have dressed up a bit on Armistice Day and shown more respect to the Fallen; they may think he’s an idiot and needs to get his act together. They may not believe in Corbyn at all. But that won’t necessarily stop them voting Labour – because they, like me, came up in a political world in which you don’t generally believe in your party’s leader, and you vote for your party for other reasons (particularly if the party you vote for is Labour). This in turn suggests that Corbyn’s personal qualities – even his personal popularity or otherwise – may be irrelevant to his success or failure as a Labour leader: the things that make you want to choose to vote for a party are very different from the qualities that make you identify with a leader personally. Politicians who have left-wing principles and are willing to explain and justify them – without evasion and using full sentences – may have an appeal that a more charismatic leader lacks.
In short, the Oldham West result suggests, not only that the great working-class drift to UKIP is a chimera (I’ll be writing more about this), but that Labour under Corbyn can win. It also suggests that winning is anything but guaranteed: the party needs to have the chance to get its message across, the party needs to unite and the members need to get out there. None of these things are in Corbyn’s gift, but Labour as a whole can make them happen. Hopefully the more pragmatic parts of the Right of the party are taking note.
Update “Perhaps the local party didn’t target them”, indeed. The very thought!
We had three rounds of canvassing in total. Our first round focused on every individual that had ever voted in any election, regardless of political history. Our second round of canvassers visited those voters that had either remained uncontacted from the first round, or who had told the first canvassers that they might be supporting Labour, were still undecided, or wouldn’t say. Our third and final round of canvassing, most of which was done in the final week, was focused on firming up the weak Labour vote.
But having 700 people to do it won’t have hurt.