Losing North West Durham: one year on.

In general, I find writing cathartic. Having said that, it’s taken me a year to write this, partly because of the emotions involved. Many people have written detailed analyses of Labour’s 2019 General Election defeat and the campaign and they are enormously useful, but I wanted to do something different: to try to explore the political and emotional impact of that loss and how we might recover.

This time a year ago, members of the Labour Party were waking up to defeat. By the time polling day came, many had seen the writing on the wall: for weeks, the polls had predicted a sizeable Tory majority, but even as polls closed, there were signs that the gap might be closing. For those who invested so much of their time and energy into the socialist project within the Labour Party, the exit polls confirmed our worst fears and it came like a hammer blow. As the night turned into morning, the nightmare intensified.

The realisation of that defeat and what it meant was a strange thing. Much like grief, it came in waves. The first stage was numbness, which I realised later was a kind of denial. I remember driving home from the Louisa Centre, in Stanley, where the count for Laura Pidcock’s North West Durham seat had taken place. Counts are a special kind of torture, especially when you know that you have lost: the endless checking, speculation and estimation, and finally, the sinking feeling when you realise that it has slipped away.

Through the heavy mist that enveloped Stanley and Consett, I wound my way home. Even though the journey back to Durham City was one that I’d done hundreds of times, I felt lost. It seemed to take an age, desperate as I was to get home to a comforting hug from my wife and kids. When I got in, it was past 5 o’ clock in the morning. Everyone was asleep. I sat down and tried to take it in, but just felt numb.

I had been working for Laura since July 2017, starting not long after an election campaign that had a very different feel, when I’d been working for Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the opposition. I’d known Laura for a long time and working with her so closely for two and half years had confirmed to me that she not only has incredible political instincts, but was also a genuinely good person, so the realisation that the working relationship had come to an end was also a massive thing to absorb.

A few hours earlier, in the enormous gym hall of the Louisa Centre, much of it had been about staying in control. In truth, even when the exit poll came in, my feeling was that we’d have done enough in North West Durham to buck the national trend. As a team, and as a wider group of activists in the CLP, huge efforts had been put into campaigning, both during the election period and in the years leading up to it.

After scanning the piles of neatly bundled votes already counted, I stepped outside into the cold and spoke to Laura on the phone and relayed the news that it was looking very tight. She was remarkably calm, as if this was the news that she had been expecting. She said that she’d come through to Stanley as soon as she could. Whilst the rest of the team watched the remaining votes spill out across tables and became increasingly fidgety – and understandably upset – Laura remained composed throughout.

It’s strange working for an MP, because there is one thing that you can never share with them, especially one that is as high profile as Laura Pidcock – and that is what it is like to be watched constantly, to be in the glare of the spotlight. Staff members might get a glimpse occasionally, when someone has a pop on Twitter – normally over something that you cannot, under the terms of your contract, answer. But really, that is small beer to what someone like Laura has had to put up with over the last four years, and so, those MPs who are under intense scrutiny almost have to train themselves to not show emotion, in public or online. Remember, in her short time as MP, Laura lost her dad, who was not only her rock and mentor, but also – as she said in her brilliant Miners’ Gala speech – her best friend. And, while being subject to almost constant bile from the right-wing tabloids, she also had a baby. These are no small things for anyone to cope with, but being in the public eye, it is an enormous pressure.

Clearly, for Laura as well as all of us packed into that gym hall – the office staff, the activists, the Labour members – and those watching at home on TV – losing North West Durham was a devastating defeat. Politically, because of the representative role that would now be in the hands of a free-marketeer, former Conservative Party Deputy Head of Press in a land decimated by Thatcherite policies. On a personal level, considering the commitment that Laura put into that role (right from the starting pistol of her Maiden Speech, which so signalled her intent), she must have felt that very intensely. Nobody expects hearts to bleed for MPs, Laura as much as anyone else, but having witnessed at first-hand what she went through between 2017 and 2019, the sense of personal loss and emptiness has to have been considerable.

People often think that people involved in politics – whether MPs or their staff – are machines. I can understand that and a lot of it is the responsibility of politicians themselves, at least those who trot out pre-prepared lines, or cloak themselves in the language of managerialism. But what that has engendered is a real lack of empathy from much of the public and genuine hostility to anyone who might show emotion, anger at injustice or – God forbid – make the occasional mistake. We say we don’t want robots, but when our representatives stray from the script, we nail them.  

Clearly, we all make mistakes in the course of our lives, and it is no different for people in politics. I’ve noticed a tendency amongst people, especially on social media, to treat politicians as if they are there simply to defend their records, as if it were impossible for them to learn, to reflect on their own mistakes and analyse defeats. People are still hammering Laura for losing a “safe” Labour seat, with no concept of how complex that question is – it is certainly not something that can be answered in 140 characters.

For the Labour Party to bounce back in the North, just as for Laura Pidcock or any of the brilliant candidates who lost their seats or didn’t quite make it, the key is to make an honest assessment of where things went wrong and to rebuild ourselves on the basis of those lessons. We need to dig down into the way we run our elections, at national, regional and local level, but also what we do out of election time, as a party, in our communities.

We have to understand what it means to be a campaigning organisation, why our roots may be shallow in the very local communities we need to win. It is not just a case of re-branding our local operation as “community organising”, it means re-evaluating how we do the basics: how we get to talk to people, how we engage with those who are already fighting for their communities and how we mobilise those who aren’t.

The lessons to learn from North West Durham are manifold. I can just touch on a few things here, but in all the constituencies we lost, we must have an honest, root-and-branch evaluation of why. Of course, Brexit was a major factor – both in the sense that we were on the wrong side of the argument for many working-class communities, but also because of the lack of clarity for many others. In North West Durham, I’m convinced that many people who could have been encouraged to vote Labour based on the other policies in our manifesto, turned away from us based on what they were reading in the papers – that Labour were, at heart, a Remain party that would overturn the referendum result.

At various public meetings held during the election campaign and in the months preceding it, people would have a go at Laura for that position. Once they had listened to her explain a much more nuanced position on Brexit, their stance softened considerably. Despite the mix of politics represented in those meeting, many used Bennite arguments about the lack of accountability of the EU and were surprised to hear a Labour MP agree with them on that. But you can’t, in an election period, convince people one at a time, in the face of a media which is painting a different picture (with the help of some within the party).

In this scenario, the Tory candidate – who had virtually no profile, either online or offline – was able to sit back, rely on the national media and newspapers do his work for him, and let the damage be done to his Labour opponent. I heard a rumour that Richard Holden spent quite a bit of polling day in his car, sat in a layby outside Wolsingham, basically keeping out of the way. I don’t know if that is true, but it would make sense, because the campaigning he had to do was minimal. Our battle was to cut through the media messages and talk about the issues that mattered to Laura’s constituents, not with a fairly anonymous Tory candidate.

In addition, there are incredible pressures on someone who is promoted to the Shadow Cabinet, like Laura was. This has an effect on what someone can say as an MP, especially on the controversial issues that tend to dominate an election. Again, I don’t say this to elicit sympathy, but these constraints are tough for the MP and their team. If you are an MP, there’s always an element of collective responsibility. You are, after all, selected by members of that party and act as a member of that party in Parliament, even as a backbencher. As a Shadow Cabinet member, that pressure increases hugely – and not just in the lines that you have to accept, but in the events you are expected to attend, taking you out of your constituency, and the endless round of media appearances.

Of course, there is an argument that socialists like Laura should forego Shadow Cabinet positions and focus on their constituency. Being a backbencher gives you a good deal more autonomy. But that discounts the fact that Laura and those MPs who did those frontbench jobs were committed to the socialist project represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party. It gave her and us as a team the chance to work with outstanding people like John Hendy and Keith Ewing to develop transformational workers’ rights policies that would have real impact in the community Laura was representing.

I think it’s a balancing act and it could well be that we got the balance wrong: certainly, there was an impression of Laura being a ‘high flyer’ and out of the constituency, pursuing her career – a false impression, as it happens, because she spent more time in her constituency and did more surgeries than most MPs. I have to say, too, that the talk of Laura as a ‘future leader’ of the party was possibly damaging locally. Two years in, people expected the focus to be on the constituency. It was (we had a rule in the office that anything we did had to be of benefit to the constituents, the movement or both). I was witness to Laura inviting some of her strongest local critics, those loudest voices on social media, into our constituency office, listening to them and trying to win them over – and often succeeding. Laura has never been a self-publicist, quite the opposite. She has strong views but is very grounded – anyone who knows her well will tell you that. Again, though, we were battling against a media perception, fuelled by social media outrage.  

With all of these things stacked against us, how could we have responded? I’ve never advocated a defeatist attitude to politics; I simply don’t believe that Brexit made it a done deal. Nor do I think that it is impossible to get your messages to people directly, manoeuvring around the media narrative. I do think, however, that it takes an enormous amount of planned, disciplined and hard work. Some of that work can be done by a good social media presence, but increasingly, I’m realising that we can’t rely on that: we have to go deep into communities and do the hard yards.

A lot of people will say that we did that. And of course, the amount of work that local activists have done over the last five years is exceptional, both during election time and the weekly campaigns that are run by volunteers who just want to change things in their communities. However (and this has been recognised by local activists in Broxtowe, for instance) there is a real issue with the way that we do this campaigning. My view – and I accept that this is part of a huge debate, so it is not fixed – is that it is time to reconsider some of the fundamentals: the door knocking; the reliance on leaflet drops; the standalone petitions on the high street and the way we do street stalls altogether.

One of my impressions of the campaign in North West Durham was that it was hard to get to talk to people, especially those who had seemingly made up their mind due to Brexit. Getting through to those exact people was key to winning or losing that seat. The Tories, as I’ve already noted, didn’t need to speak to them: the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ had already done its work. But we needed to talk to them, and it needed to be meaningful – not a snatched word on the high street, not ‘will you be voting for us?’ on a doorstep, but a genuine conversation, starting with asking and listening. Richard Holden, the Conservative candidate won by just over 1,100 votes. Winning some of those voters in this kind of political environment, plus encouraging other to get out to vote, wouldn’t have been easy, but neither was it impossible. But it would have required more, in depth conversations.

Where could those conversations be had? It’s hard, maybe even unlikely, to be able to do this in the confines of a short General Election campaign. Firstly, people will assume that the conversations on the doorstep are not genuine, because the canvassers are “just trying to win votes”. There’s some truth to this. Secondly, by knocking on people’s doors, or stopping them while they are doing their shopping, we are immediately intruding on their private space. Immediately, the relationship is skewed. They want to get away, you want to engage them in conversation. Unless you are the best communicator in the world (and some Labour Party members are brilliant at this, no doubt), you are going to struggle to get anything meaningful out of that situation. We need to rethink this.

The answer lies in community organising: not a superficial, branded version of it, but a real, long-term commitment to working together with communities in all their diversity, to build relationships based on trust and respect. It should also foreground winning victories – small at first, but with the aim of increasing people’s confidence. Because, at the moment, many people don’t feel like they can win – and if we’re serious about community organising, we have to understand why and how we can change that, not by imposing ourselves on communities or individuals, but by being part of their struggles.

The community meetings Laura called around the North West Durham constituency were important, and we didn’t have the time to do enough of that. These public meetings didn’t have an agenda or a theme. The idea was that people could raise whatever they wanted, and Laura would answer. They were tough sessions, and tense at times because clearly people were angry. But also, they were some of the most genuine conversations that we had (outside of the surgery meetings), where Laura could listen and respond and there could be dialogue. It didn’t take too much for some common ground to be found. Of course, there are other ways to do this: we could try to revive Labour clubs, like they have in Wakefield; or we can get involved in small, community campaigns and initiatives which opens the door to talk to people in a less adversarial space.

Either way, I think it’s important to discuss this seriously, because it’s not just about the way we run our election campaigns better, it’s the way we rebuild the party and the left within it. We can’t do that until we make genuine inroads into working class communities. Ask yourself where the gaps are? Often, or at least in many constituencies, it is the working-class areas. That coincides with those people being attracted to some easy solutions offered in the form of slogans on behalf of the Brexit Party and the Tories. When it comes down to it, that’s not about people being inherently xenophobic or racist (though that does clearly exist) but being alienated by a political class that has not listened to them for a long time.

We have to reverse that alienation, and that means being brave. It also means questioning what we’ve always done. We cannot rely on raising our banners, writing our manifestos, delivering our leaflets and having our meetings and hoping for the best. Fundamentally, this is about getting stuck in – into the messy world of conflictual, but real, politics. Until we do that, with honesty and self-reflection, I think we will struggle to win back Red Wall seats like North West Durham in any meaningful way. Because it’s not just about winning elections, it’s about winning hearts and minds in the communities that have the most to gain from the redistributive, socialist policies that we all advocate for.

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Tony Benn encouraged me

Labour Grassroots event on Zoom, 9th December 2020. Time was short, and so many people wanted to talk about Tony, which meant that it wasn’t possible to give my full contribution, but here are my notes for the event:

I can remember reading Tony’s ‘Arguments for Socialism’ when I was very young, probably about 16 or 17, and going on marches and rallies where he was speaking, and of course, at the big Chesterfield conferences, but the first time I met Tony Benn was when he came to speak at Leeds University Labour Club around 1991-92. I was chair of the club, so I got to take him for a cup of tea in the refectory at the end. I was sitting there, very spaced out because I was sitting having a cuppa with the great Tony Benn and I can remember, all he wanted to talk about was Dennis Skinner and how fantastic he was. Then he suddenly remembered he had a train to catch in a hurry, so I ended up giving him a lift down to Leeds train station in my little old Panda. The only thing was, I hadn’t even passed my test. Tony said, ‘don’t worry, I’ll be your instructor’. I somehow managed to get him onto his train on time, God knows how.

The second time I met him properly was probably about 20 years later, when I’d just opened the People’s Bookshop in Durham. He was coming to the Gala Theatre in Durham to do a talk and I’d invited to come to the bookshop, but realised he wouldn’t have made it up the stairs. But he sent a message via his editor, Ruth Winstone, to say that he’d like to meet me before the event. When I got there, my heart sank as I could see he was surrounded by local dignitaries, one with a chain on and so on. But whether he guessed it was me or Ruth nudged him, he immediately stopped the conversation, and said: ‘I’m sorry, you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got to speak to this young man, who owns a radical bookshop. By the way, do you know Ben’s bookshop?’ And then he found a spot where we had a lovely 15 minute chat. He was so kind, and thoughtful, like that – and I think a lot of us have those sorts of memories.

I just want to say one thing about Tony’s socialism, though. I think it’s really important and valuable to watch his speeches. He always claimed he didn’t read much – I’m not sure about that, but I do think his legacy owes much to the oral tradition. He was at his best when he was telling a story, and he does this in many of his speeches. They really are beautifully crafted.

The one that everyone should watch, at least once a day, or whenever you feel a bit down, is on YouTube under the title The Issue is Thatcher. It was given in 1990, on the day that Thatcher announced her resignation. And especially the section when he’s talking about the socialist train, that’s a perfect example of how to inject hope and talk about socialism in clear, accessible ways – it being deeply ingrained in people in the way they related to each other, rather than the selfish, individualism of Thatcherism. Socialism as a moral philosophy. And it’s brilliantly done.

I was thinking about this the other day when my good friend Laura Pidcock did a series of posts about Socialism – Socialism is Love; Socialism is Security and so on. And quite a few people answered by saying, no it is not: socialism is the social ownership of the means of production. And of course, that is right, but it’s not the whole story. Socialism is more than an economic code, it’s a moral philosophy and a way of life, and more than anyone, Tony was able to articulate that, to tell that story.

Marxist economics has its place, of course, but if you’re trying to convince someone, that shouldn’t be your opening gambit. Tony understood that. And if you ask me, that’s the lasting legacy, it’s that he showed us how to do that. We may not all be able to win hearts and minds with the same charm and humour as Tony, but I think that is a key lesson: that we must tell stories and make socialism absolutely relatable.

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