Wednesday, 19 January 2011
Moving from third place to first - Building Labour's recovery in the South
Stuart King reports from the launch of Third Place First
The re-launch of Third Place First, the Labour campaign to win in seats where we are currently in third place, was the success it needed to be, as around 100 MPs, councillors and activists from the South met in the House of Commons yesterday.
Progress, the organiser of the event, did not disappoint, providing those of us who made the trip to Westminster with three excellent speakers. Andy Burnham spoke on how the party would support activists in the south; Pollster, Deborah Mattinson, offered an entirely necessary exposition on the sobering reality behind our current good showing in the polls; and the estimable Joan Ryan, erstwhile Labour MP for Enfield North, issued a warning of the dangers posed to us in 2015 if the hidden Conservative landslide of 2010 is repeated.
The arguments and evidence of all three of these speakers are critical to the way Labour campaigns to win again in formerly Labour seats in the South, and so deserve, indeed must have, wider currency. I’ll return to Deborah and Joan’s presentations in a further article, but wanted to focus on what Andy Burnham had to say.
Andy’s presence at the event was important. As Labour’s general election coordinator he can play an important role in ensuring the needs of Labour campaigns in the political south are not only understood at Victoria Street, but addressed.
There was much about which to be encouraged in what Andy had to say, but also one or two points that struck a note of concern. Most welcome was his announcement that Operation Gameplan’s “Reward to win” scheme – whereby local parties are rewarded with free direct mails if they meet certain campaign targets – is to be extended to all constituencies (it previously applied to target seats only). This provides a great incentive for all local parties, especially those facing local elections in May, to get organised and get active.
We also learnt from Andy that the PLP is establishing a scheme which will allow Labour MPs to twin with constituencies that do not have their own Labour MP. This is a much mooted suggestion that in the past has promised a lot and delivered little, but news that the scheme – to be known as “PLP to win” - is being coordinated inside the PLP by Hazel Blears, should offer encouragement that this time could be different.
Andy explained that his visit last summer to Eastbourne, as part of his leadership campaign, was the first visit to the CLP by a Labour MP since a visit by Michael Meacher in 1999. That is lamentable. Sadly, it is an experience that will be familiar to many other southern constituency parties. But it is inexcusable, even with a shrunken PLP, and I urge all Labour MPs – not just those on the frontbench, to get out and about right across the country.
One Labour MP from the South who was present raised a worrying concern that our already hollowed out regional offices in the south – who will have an important role to play in supporting local election campaigns, are already being redirected to support the impending Barnsley by-election and are likely to be asked to support the Scottish and Welsh election campaigns, which coincide with UK local elections. No one doubts the importance of Labour doing well in these elections, but the news headlines on Friday 6th May should be about more than just Labour success in Holyrood and Cardiff.
The other concern I took away from last night was that, although Andy extolled the virtues of early candidate selection and the importance that this can play in local success, there remains little sign that the party in Victoria Street is prepared to change its agreed approach. A plan for the early selection of candidates in 26 marginals doesn’t go far enough. The meeting heard from Joan Ryan that to win a majority of 1 at the next election we need to win seventy marginal seats back to Labour.
But it would be wrong to finish on a downbeat note. Most of those present last night were enthused as they left, encouraged that that the party is finally beginning to recognise the need to better understand the south and its voters. It is, but there is still much more to do.
Posted by Stuart King at 15:57