Time for a new approach on the doorstep

Voters will listen to Labour again, but only if we’re willing to listen to them first, says PAUL McKAY


We’ve had more than two months to reflect on Scottish Labour’s performance at the Holyrood elections, which shook everyone to the core. In the aftermath, it’s clear that we need a dramatic change in attitude to our local campaigning.

While many constituencies in England have adopted community organising as an essential part of campaigning, Scotland has failed to keep pace. This shift needs to happen now, not just in marginal seats, but across Scotland, so that our neighbours, relatives and work colleagues know that we are the only party which can stand up for them and their communities, fighting for what really matters.

We’ve done that in the past – look at our proud record. We are a pioneering party – the party which created the NHS, an institution which is deeply rooted in the affections of people across the United Kingdom and which is now faced with the menace of privatisation brought by the Tories in England. It is summed up neatly by the late John Smith: “When Labour found the National Health Service we lifted a great burden from the shoulders of ordinary families who were set free from the financial perils of ill health.”

We are the party which delivered the Scottish Parliament.  And through the parliament, we legislated for radical land reform which tilted the balance of power away from land owners, especially in the Highlands and Islands towards crofters, tenants and communities. All these achievements were shaped by our values of fairness, equality and opportunity.  We need to take this record along with our values to the doorsteps of people in our constituencies and ensure that we become community champions.

Scottish Labour is the party that talks to voters on the doorstep more than any other political party. However, we have failed to engage and have the conversations about our proud records in government at both Westminster and Holyrood. One of the first attitudinal switches that’s required is to wean ourselves from our infatuation with voter ID.

We need to realise that campaigning is not just about collating the voting intentions of constituents. There’s so much more than this. It’s about re-engaging and reconnecting to communities across Scotland. Having pounded the streets in my constituency since September in the run-up to May, it’s clear to me that as a party we have become obsessed with the “who will you be voting for?” question. This is with the added benefit of hindsight. Door after door, we ask the same question and note those voting intentions. The stats are then collated and we analyse and calculate who’s voting and where – but this doesn’t actually tell us what people want from their government, or what changes they want to see both locally and nationally.

While collecting this data is undoubtedly helpful, and is a crucial component in understanding our vote, voter ID is certainly not a panacea for a successful campaign. In my constituency we became far too reliant on it and admittedly I did too. In fact, it gives us very little insight into the issues that really affect communities in our constituencies. That is why I believe we’ve now got to take the time to stop and listen to the worries, hopes and aspirations of voters.

Identifying and targeting our Labour vote is essential. However this must emanate through our discussion on the doorstep, finding out about them. Do they have a family? Do their priorities lie in education, health, leisure, or the environment?  By having this dialogue, we will be able to better identify a potential voter and the better accuracy we have in voter ID, the further we can engage at a later stage. What happens in practice, if we ask the question and we get the answer we want to hear – “I vote Labour” – we then rush onto the next door, ironically neglecting that core vote which is vital. This then only erodes over months and years.  We must take the time to talk with the electorate, supporters and non-supporters alike.

By doing this, we will distinguish ourselves from the SNP, who undoubtedly have a slick PR machine but are not actually doing the hard work on the ground. I know from my experience in Edinburgh that the SNP had a candidate elected to the Scottish Parliament in one constituency who did next to no campaigning in the seat. Night after night while Labour campaigners were on the street, they were nowhere to be seen or heard of.  Most astonishingly, this candidate continued to work full-time during the short campaign. This is where Scottish Labour can be the difference.

Members should be out on the door step, not just to ask the same old tired questions, but campaigning to build relationships with voters. By doing this, we will show the electorate that we don’t just come to your door at election time but are listening all year round, in touch with every community in Scotland.

I’m sure that in many constituencies across Scotland, there are core groups of party members who are out on the doorstep night after night in the run-up to polling day. While these members do a sterling job, their work alone will not secure a win for our candidates. That is why we need to utilise the talents of all members in our CLPs – young and old, male and female. We need to ensure that campaigns are inclusive, using the expertise and talents of every member and making them aware how their contribution, however big or small, is vital.

It’s not only about their contribution to the party however; it’s crucial that all members ask themselves, “What do I get out of it?” – making new friends and reacquainting with old ones, developing a better understanding of our political system or appreciating the problems facing their local community more. For this to happen, support in training and development is needed from the top-levels of the party and I hope that this is taken into consideration during the party review.

If we don’t adapt as a campaigning party in Scotland then we will lose the arguments. While the SNP will have the media clout to hit the electorate with their message, however facile that is, we will fade further and further into political oblivion – a party which appears to be past its best in Scotland. However, if the Scottish Labour Party becomes rooted in the communities we seek to represent, then we can take action on the real issues facing people in Scotland. We’ll have the opportunity to make our case to the voters, making sure that they know that it is Scottish Labour which can bring about the change that will make our communities thrive.

Paul McKay is vice chair (campaigns) of Edinburgh South CLP. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulJMcKay.

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10 thoughts on “Time for a new approach on the doorstep

  1. I think this has to be the future of the Labour Party. The party itself has to again be seen as an integral part of our communities, not just the elected members. So many of us are already playing our part, we should find a way to let people know that we are doing so as Labour party members, where appropriate.

  2. Couldn’t agree more, and this is why I was pleased to see Movement for Change hooking up with Labour post the David Miliband leadership campaign, think we in the South need to hear this message too. I hate the phrase now because of it’s associations but it is in fact the truth that hearts and minds need to be won and you can’t do that just with a voter ID conversation. There is something here about bridging the gaping cavern between local and national politics and how people operate, and if we don’t do it, and soon, we’re sunk.

  3. Mr McKay, I’d like to pick up on one line you use (Emphasis mine):

    “we are the ONLY party which can stand up for them and their communities”

    With all due respect, this hubris is part of the problem with the wider Labour movement, right now. An absolute belief that you are the ONLY party who can and will stand up for the people is hurting you badly, because it causes an unconscious assumption that the votes of the people are yours by right if you can only get your message across. The people disagree, which is why they vote for other parties. No-one ever votes for a party they believe will actively harm them, after all.

    Labour should strive to be the BEST party at sticking up for ordinary people. The idea that you are in competition rather than the sole provider should help Labour to find its way, and not just in Scotland.

    The broader idea of your article is, of course, correct. But a party certain it is the ONLY anything won’t do much real listening because they won’t have the humility to listen.

    And a party convinced it is the ONLY will damn itself once more to opposition.

    Please take this as friendly advice, for it is meant as such 🙂

    1. Thats good advice. Perhaps you can also tell the SNP to stop saying they are the ONLY party who can and will stand up for Scotland.

      I seem to recall them doing a lot of that during the election.

      1. The danger is not in saying it as part of the normal political bull, the danger is in actually believing it.

        With that said, as I disagree totally with the SNP’s aims of destroying the Union, I hope they DO start to believe it. Should make things a lot easier for those opposing them! 😉

      2. The Scottish Green Party also stand up for Scotland, and so does Margo MacDonald. So together with the SNP that’s 2 parties and one independent MSP standing up for Scotland currently in the Scottish Parliament, and the 3 Unionist parties all standing up for the Union.

  4. During May’s Scottish Parliament campaign, I encountered a number of people – Labour voters and otherwise – who expressed their admiration and appreciation of seeing volunteers on the streets, seemingly to engage with the local community on important issues. Sadly, it often felt that once we had arrived on the doorstep, however, there was no definitive Labour message to convey. Where I did the vast majority of my campaigning, I was fortunate to be able to point to the many personal attributes of the local Labour candidate, and her record as an extremely able and hard working MSP for the previous two parliaments. In terms of national politics, however, volunteers were bereft of an emphatic Labour message. Perhaps this explains why Labour’s doorstep campaign became a mechanical box ticking exercise, instead of an opportunity to engage with the electorate in addition to collecting valuable psephological data?

    The author of this piece is correct in identifying that Scottish Labour must involve the electorate in a frank discussion of the issues that are of importance to them. Then, with a set of clear cut, positive Scottish Labour policies in these areas, we can address contemporary local issues with confidence and demonstrate our commitment and ability to best serve the interests of the Scottish people.

  5. I am thrilled that a Scottish CLP considers itself to have done too much voter ID. I makes a very welcome change from the reality in the rest of the seats. Having campaigned in the Scottish elections, including in Edinburgh I was frankly shocked by the level of canvassing that had been done prior to the start of the campaign — some seats had vote ID rates of close to zero percent. The review of Scottish campaigning should make absolutely sure that CLPs have strict requirements in this area. Having good conversations with the community is important, but if you don’t know where your vote is, you can’t target your literature and you’re screwed on election day for getting out the vote.

    1. We also have to recognise that for many CLPs, voterID is difficult, if not impossible due to the number of activists. Many people are willing to be members – even attend CLP meetings, but for a variety of reasons are unable to go out on the doorsteps.

      Its not good setting an arbitrary target (eg all CLPs must acheive 500 VoterID this month or whatever) if achieving any at all would be fantastic for some.

  6. A good post. i wonder about the communities that aren’t just neighbourhoods – we need to be identifying people who share common difficulties, who are excluded from doorstep conversations and engage with them as well. In terms of building relationships with voters, I see a lot of door stepping that is little more than door to door sales with an obvious voter ID pitch. There needs to be some training for the Party for people on basic engagement skills, I think.

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