It’s past three in the morning on May 8th. Numb shock has replaced the disbelief that greeted the terrible exit poll showing the Conservatives headed for victory. For the past five hours my fellow campaigners and I have sat in stunned disappointment as Labour seat after Labour seat turned Tory blue or SNP yellow.
My legs are aching and my back is stiff from fifteen hours spent on the doorstep getting the vote out in Ilford North, London’s northernmost Labour-Tory marginal seat. Yet the omens bode ill for Wes Streeting, the Labour candidate, and his campaign team. Finchley and Golders Green, Croydon Central, Harrow East, and Battersea have all stayed resolutely blue. Rupa Huq may have scraped past the Conservatives in Ealing Central and Acton by 274 votes, but she needed only a 3.9 per cent swing in her favour compared to the 5.7 per cent Labour needs to win in Ilford North.
Then a text comes through from one of the Ilford North campaign team at the count: “Wes has won!”
Ten minutes later the news is confirmed at the declaration. Against all the odds, Labour has captured the seat from Lee Scott, the Conservative incumbent of ten years, with a 6.2% swing. It’s a rare point of light in an otherwise dark night for the Labour party.
So how did Wes win? I went straight to the heart of the Ilford North operation to find out. The ground war was coordinated by Matt Goddin, the local organiser and a seasoned campaigner with four years’ experience for the Labour party under his belt. He was helped by a team of local activists, including Lloyd Duddridge and Richard Angell, who helped coordinate the campaign.
They boil the campaign’s success down to three core ingredients. First of all: the presence of a strong candidate. Matt, who’s worked for a number of hopeful office-seekers down the years, says: “The quality of our candidates is important and should not be underestimated. My job as the organiser was made so much easier by having a candidate in Wes who knew what he wanted to say, knew how to say it, and had people who wanted to come and campaign for him.”
A common refrain among the staff and volunteers is that Wes had a personal story that spoke to local people and their aspirations, while the story of the Ilford North campaign itself – a marginal on a knife edge that Labour needed to win if it was to have any hope of forming a government in 2015 –drew activists from across London and beyond to help. In the year before polling day, Labour Students held two campaign days in Ilford North, with support also coming from the Young Fabians, London Young Labour, the Fabian Women’s Network, and LGBT Labour, among others. A constant flow of activists from neighbouring Labour strongholds – Ilford South, East Ham, and Leyton and Wanstead – also helped keep the contacts pouring in. As Richard Angell put it: “The candidate became the message, the messenger, and the magnet for volunteers.”
I’d seen this myself on my numerous visits to the constituency. Ilford North was a seat, and Wes was a candidate, you just kept wanting to go back to. It’s an X-factor that’s hard to define, but I’d argue it was his self-awareness that really made him stand out. Here was a candidate who was under no illusions about the challenges facing the campaign and was open and honest about how it was going. It was an honesty that let volunteers know they weren’t being kept in the dark- that they were as much a part of the campaign as he was.
As a seat, Ilford North also had much to intrigue Labour activists. A seat between the city and the suburbs, this was an area outside Labour’s traditional comfort zone that demanded a campaign that reached beyond the party’s base. A welter of swing voters in the more comfortable wards made for interesting doorstep conversations, while campaigners also had to ensure they spoke to the growing BAME communities moving into the area from east London and beyond. It was a seat that required a broad coalition of support – and a candidate with broad appeal – to capture.
The second ingredient was a strong local organisation. The bedrock of this was Redbridge council. Redbridge had returned a Labour majority for the first time ever in the 2014 local elections, a campaign that served as a useful dress rehearsal for 2015. It served a secondary purpose too in getting Wes elected to the council, where he then served as deputy leader – allowing him to build a personal profile as well as a record in government he could point to when it came to the short campaign, says Matt.
This highlights how a strong Labour presence at the local level can act as a step-ladder to parliamentary success. Worryingly for the party, however, May 8 saw Labour lose 203 councillors in total, as well as lose control of three councils, fracturing its organisational and activist base in seats across the country. Rebuilding here will be the first step to retaking the House of Commons.
The third ingredient was an energetic and motivated volunteer base. Every campaign claimed to have a thriving grassroots movement underpinning its success, but in Ilford North this was more than just talk. Lloyd says the secret was making each and every volunteer feel valued. “No one was left behind. Everyone had an active part to play and everyone deserved the respect they received once they got here. We didn’t work in terms of a hierarchy, we worked in the terms of a team and made sure that everyone knew that every vote would matter. We convinced people this was going to be very close so they would do everything they could to make us win. That was why I think we had people coming back.”
Matt adds that respecting volunteers doesn’t mean wrapping people in cotton wool. Yes it’s important to make people feel welcome – and ensuring a constant supply of biscuits and tea is available – but this isn’t the same as motivating them, he says.
“You respect volunteers by making sure they understand that what they’re doing is valuable and by valuing their time. We always tried to make sure we got people out on the doorstep as quickly as we could. Then people feel like: ‘I’ve come here, they’ve given me something to do, I’ve gone and done it, I’ve come back, and that’s two hours well spent and it is worth me coming back and giving another two hours of my weekend because I feel like I’m being used.”
Having a high volume of volunteers helped Ilford North rocket to the top of the list in terms of contacts made. By polling day, the Labour campaign had a contact rate of over 70 per cent – a figure most other seats could only dream of.
But having volunteers turn up week after week is one thing. Having them know what they are doing on the doorstep is another. Matt says the clarity of Wes’s message helped, not only in the abstract but in the way in which it was distilled in his campaign literature.
“He got his message into his literature in a way people understood and that made our job as campaign organisers that much easier because if a volunteer asked: ‘What should I say if somebody asks me why they should vote for Wes?’ I could say it was all on the leaflet: the three things you need to know about the candidate and the five things he’s going to do for Ilford North.”
Also key was not overloading volunteers with complex lists of instructions. “It’s quite daunting to go and knock on someone’s door and ask them personal private questions on their voting intention,” explains Matt. “So giving volunteers three questions to ask is enough. If organisers say ‘This week we need to talk on the doorstep about postal votes, and we’d really like mobile numbers and email addresses too’, well, people are going to do the last thing you tell them to do. You need to decide what’s important. I think sometimes the party forgets that.”
A well-drilled team of volunteers is nothing, however, if it lacks the ability to reach out to wavering voters. Being a Tory-Labour marginal, the only route to victory for Wes was through Tory and Liberal Democrat switchers. It was also important for Labour to limit the potential shock of a UKIP surge eating into Labour’s core vote.
“We had people who could articulate our arguments very coherently and very strongly and if we didn’t have that pool of 30 to 35 people on the doorstep who could really hold their own in argument and discussion we would have lost,” says Lloyd.
Matt adds that these arguments were based on direct feedback from the doorstep, which helped Wes’s message cut through. “What we didn’t try to do is try to pretend our voters were something other than what they were. We spoke to the voters about what they themselves told us was important. We did the same in the local elections: the five things we promised as Redbridge Labour we would deliver if we were elected were the things people kept on telling us on the doorstep were important to them.”
The data tells an interesting story. Impressions gleaned from the post-election polling sample in Ilford North suggests that Labour lost more voters to UKIP than the Tories did, gained fewer Liberal Democrat voters than might have been expected, but – in contrast to the national campaign – performed well in terms of winning Tory switchers, suggesting Wes’ campaign focus on local services and crime, as well as the focus on his personal story, was wisely done.
There were some idiosyncrasies associated with Ilford North that also played a part in Labour’s victory that were outside the ground campaign’s control. Demographic change certainly lent a hand. Over the years Ilford North has attracted greater numbers of affluent British Asian families who are more predisposed to vote Labour. This did not mean, however, that Wes and team could take their votes for granted – tellingly, Matt says it was the aspirational components of Labour’s message that cemented BAME support for polling day.
Then there was the failings of the Conservative opposition. The old adage: “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them” applied in Ilford North, according to Matt and Lloyd. “I don’t think the people of Ilford North, which Matt and myself are part of, saw a reason to vote for Lee Scott. You looked around with weeks to go and thought why should anyone vote for Lee? He’d had ten years in the job, and people thought do we need another five years of this man when we’ve seen very little in ten?” says Lloyd. Matt puts it down to something else: “I think Lee underestimated us,” he says.
The story of Ilford North is an object lesson in effective campaigning that Labour can and must learn from if it is to have a hope of winning an outright majority in five years’ time. It shows what is possible when a strong political message is harnessed to a well-organised and motivated campaign machine, and highlights the importance of investing in quality candidates and volunteers. As a blueprint for victory in 2020, the story of Ilford North should not be ignored.