There were constituencies up and down the country which bucked the trend and performed fantastically well for Labour in 2010. Gisela Stuart in Birmingham Edgbaston and Andrew Smith in Oxford East are just two examples.
And our team in Barking triumphed over Nick Griffin and the BNP, knocking out all the BNP councillors on the borough council and destabilising them nationally. Despite the BNP fielding their leader as the candidate, Labour’s share of the vote in the general election in Barking increased from nearly 48 per cent in 2005 to over 54 per cent in 2010.
There are lessons everyone can learn from our experience in Barking which could help Labour elsewhere rebuild for future elections.
Barking had always been a traditional Labour stronghold. We were used to weighing in, not counting, in the Labour vote and we didn’t have to campaign very hard to win well.
That began to change in 2001 when the turnout at the general election dropped to 45.5 per cent – the lowest turnout since 1918. At that time I did some focus group work to better understand what was happening.
Talking to women on the estates I found that it was anger, not apathy, that kept them away from the polling booths. Our voters felt we had become completely out of touch with them and their concerns. In the words of one voter: ‘the small fish that understand people like us forget us as they go up. The higher up they go the more they forget.’ People we talked to felt that the Labour government was not responding to what mattered to them, particularly on immigration and housing.
That should have prompted me to take action right away and I wish I had. But the local Labour party was complacent, exclusive and inward-looking. People cared more about resolutions in the town hall than action in the community and it seemed easier to allow the old habits to continue.
Then in 2006 the BNP stood 13 candidates in the borough elections and gained 12 seats. Had they stood more candidates, the BNP would almost certainly have gained control of Barking and Dagenham council. After the boundaries were redrawn all but one of the BNP councillors were in my constituency.
The reasons for voters abandoning Labour and turning to the BNP were many and complex.
The council had controlled over 90 per cent of the housing in the borough before Right to Buy took effect. So they were able to house young couples who had lived in the borough all their lives as they started their own families. As the new MP in 1994, I was struck by how many great-grandmothers lived within walking distance of their great-grandchildren.
As the housing was privatised through Right to Buy, new communities moved in and the council’s inability to build new decent, affordable housing meant that local families missed out and blamed the families who were new to the area for their lack of a home.
When the BNP embarked on the Goebbels’ style ‘Big Lie’ by claiming that Labour councils were deliberately exporting Africans to Essex, local people believed them.
At the same time the pre-eminent employer in Dagenham, Fords, was cutting its workforce from around 40,000 employees at its peak to 4,000 today. Local people who, generation after generation, had had secure stable, well-paid jobs without having to gain many qualifications in the past, found that those jobs were no longer there.
This experience of sudden change and insecurity had a profound impact. If you can’t get a job or a home, if you find you have new neighbours and the local shops change, you look for somebody to blame.
Put those factors together with a complacent local party, an inward-looking council and no mainstream opposition presence to keep Labour on its toes, and you can begin to understand why the BNP thought that this was fertile territory.
In 2006 I decided we had to radically change what we did and how we did it. It was only because we started work four years before the general and local elections that we were able to deny the BNP the substantial victory that they would have otherwise secured. So my first message to Labour party members up and down the country is, if you want to win for Labour, you need to start working now in a long and consistent campaign. By the time of the short election campaign it is too late.
Our strategy involved a fundamental regeneration of the local party and the injection of new candidates for council seats; strong hands-on leadership from me as the MP; relentless activity entirely focused on reconnecting with our voters; and a tight and well-organised short campaign.
In common with many local Labour parties, our constituency party was pretty small and new members were not really welcomed, particularly if they challenged or criticised existing power bases.
We deliberately set about changing that. As well as engaging with the longstanding community, we reached out to the new community too. We actively recruited new members wherever we went in the borough and doubled our membership during the period when Labour nationally was losing members. We welcomed younger people, many individuals from all BAME communities and many more women.
They joined because they wanted to work with us to defeat the BNP and because we made sure that they were all valued and included. We built up a fantastic Labour action team of dedicated activists who are still working and growing in numbers. Some of the new members replaced existing councillors, understanding that they had to change what they did to win.
Membership is no longer about going to endless, tedious party meetings. It is all about working together in the community and growing support for Labour. We’re not obsessed with the powers of Labour’s NEC. We are obsessed with reconnecting Labour with our voters and our communities.
We were well-supported by Unite and Unison, especially after Nick Griffin announced that he was going to stand in Barking. Unite Against Fascism also buried some ideological differences to work with us to beat the BNP.
I completely changed what I did as the leader of our local efforts. I stopped cutting ribbons, addressing traditional Labour party or trade union meetings and gossiping at town hall shindigs. Everything I did and everything we did from the constituency office had to support our objective of reconnecting Labour with those whose support we seek.
And once we had reconnected with individuals, we kept in regular touch with them, making sure they heard from us at least seven times every year.
What does reconnection mean to us in Barking? First it’s about engaging with as many people as possible face-to-face. Second it’s about enabling the people we meet to set their own agenda for what we talk about, not dictating the agenda from Westminster, the town hall or the Labour party.
So, for instance, we write to 2000 voters asking them to come and have a cup of tea with me. Fifty or so turn up and we sit them at small tables with one Labour activist at each table. We encourage them to talk about the issues that matter to them and I go from table to table, listening.
Most concerns are very local, affecting the immediate places where people live. It may be a bus stop that needs moving, some antisocial behaviour in the neighbourhood or a parking issue. Politics starts with the local. And the national issues people care about are the ones that affect them locally, like housing and immigration.
After I’ve gone round all the tables I draw together two or three local issues and we discuss how we can address the problems. I also always engage in an open discussion on the impact of migration on our borough, explaining why the change has happened and how we can work together to make it work for them. We write again to all 2000 voters telling them what happened and what I’m going to do. I never promise success; I always promise I will try.
But if I do manage to resolve successfully any of the local issues raised I write to the 2000 voters a third time telling them what we have achieved. And then people start to build trust in their political representatives and then they might think about supporting us in elections.
In a similar vein, if I get a constituency case on a local issue – anything from dirty streets to the presence of prostitutes in the area – we write to everybody in the area inviting them to a street meeting. Again, anything from 20-50 people will turn up, but we assemble all relevant officials from the council, the police and other agencies and we all try to identify a practical solution to the problem. We write to everybody a second time telling them what happened. This local community action again helps restore and build trust. I often have two street meetings a week and the people who deliver my letters may not be party members, but residents who support our efforts to improve their local area.
Our canvassing strategy is also different. When people answer the door we identify ourselves as being out with the Labour Action team and we talk about some change I have achieved in the area, like getting yellow lines painted on the road. We then ask people what else they would like me to tackle to improve their area and where we can, we promise to try to do something, so the conversation can take time.
Only at the end do we undertake the voter ID. When we find Labour voters we make sure we keep in regular touch with them, with newsletters, local campaigns and updates on local issues. Keeping in regular touch with Labour supporters is hugely important to getting the vote out on the day.
Again, we write to everybody in the area after a Saturday canvass to tell them what I am going to do on their behalf and they will get a second letter if I am successful in addressing any of the local issues raised.
At a recent new members’ event I asked one woman why she had joined the party and she replied that she had been so impressed that I had got her a new dustbin within days of a Saturday canvass, she wanted to help!
We also run big campaigns on constituency issues – getting a new maternity unit in the borough, stopping post office closures or opposing the closure of a local A&E department. For these campaigns we also recruit volunteers who are not party members but who support the campaign and are willing to help with leaflet deliveries and petition signatures.
None of this is rocket science. But it does require consistent, hard work by a team of Labour activists.
Throughout the four years of doing this work it was obvious that immigration was the top national issue for the voters in Barking and Dagenham. They saw everything through the vortex of immigration – from housing to jobs to school places and to waiting lists at the local hospital.
Throughout the four years, not much changed nationally on our immigration policy or on housing policy – the two key national issues that they cared about most, yet I was able to build trust, reconnect with our voters and secure their support. By simply listening to what mattered to them and by responding to the local issues which really bothered them outside their front door, in their immediate community, we restored the bond that had broken.
And we never caved in to any racism. There were those in the borough who urged us not to put up candidates of African and Asian origin in BNP strongholds. We were clear that that was not the politics we wanted for the borough. So we placed men and women with obvious Asian and African names as Council candidates throughout the constituency – and every one of them beat the BNP. You don’t win the white working-class vote by acting in a racist and discriminatory manner in the conduct of your own politics.
And finally, we were well-organised. People who came to help never spent time in the campaign HQ. Those who trudged the streets in the snow were rewarded with soup and Mars Bars! We always dealt efficiently with casework. Our literature was of a high quality and focused on local, not national, issues. We were rigorous in our voter ID because we wanted to ensure we knocked up only the Labour vote. We really mobilised the BAME vote, but we also regained much of the white working class support we had lost.
And in the end we triumphed. We triumphed because of the support of countless people who came to help and to all of whom we are indebted. But the thing of which I am most proud is Barking Labour party. We turned a small and elite group which kept new people out and did not talk to voters into a brilliant team of community activists. We built a party properly representative in age, ethnicity and gender of the community we represent, and dedicated to the values of solidarity and equality which underpin the Labour party. We are still out on Saturdays, we still hold regular coffee afternoons and street meetings, we still listen and respond and we still make reconnection the test of everything we do. Thank you to all who helped us in Barking to win such an important national struggle.
Margaret Hodge is Labour MP for Barking and chair of the public accounts committee