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Thu, 18 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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'Gloriously boring': How a ruthlessly efficient Labour machine won the election

Prime Minister Keir Starmer outside No 10, July 5, 2024 (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

13 min read

How did Labour win its staggering majority of 174? Party insiders take Sienna Rodgers behind the scenes of the campaign, from the ‘professionalised’ HQ to the ruthlessly efficient ground operation

Rishi Sunak’s biggest mistake, Labour strategists believe, was not waiting until November to hold an election. His second biggest mistake was setting the date for 4 July instead of 2 May. 

When the opposition party talked up the idea of a May election, insiders say they were not simply laying the ground for a “Sunak bottled it” argument but genuinely preparing for that possibility. Labour had to be ready for any date.

“The professionalisation of the campaign was striking and not to be underestimated. It just worked”

In a tedious exercise, campaign chiefs war-gamed every scenario. What if the election were called on a Monday, or a Tuesday after the Cabinet meeting? On a Wednesday, before or after Prime Minister’s Questions? If it’s May, bank holidays must be factored in, they calculated; if it’s late June, the football will affect the availability of billboards.

Local elections then allowed Labour to perfect its operation. The party tested arguments, addressed parts of the machine that were underdelivering, and was as ready as it could ever have been when the moment came on that rainy Wednesday afternoon, 22 May.

It helped that, as well as creating negative press for the Tories later in the campaign, bets placed shortly before the election announcement gave campaign director Morgan McSweeney a small but useful heads-up: he knew the day before the announcement that something was about to happen.

“We didn’t look at any point as though we were the people caught on the hop. You would think we had dictated the timing,” one new Labour MP says.

Keir Starmer illustration
Illustration by Tracy Worrall

Labour insiders also think Sunak lacked a framing for 4 July. Was the Conservative pitch that their prime minister’s plan was already working? If so, why was he sometimes leaning into a change argument? In contrast to the overlong Tory slogan, “Clear plan, bold action, secure future”, Labour decided on a single word: “Change”. It was memorable and exactly what they wanted voters to think of when holding their pen over the ballot paper.

The national service announcement at the start of the campaign typified the Conservative lack of focus, a Labour source says, as it swallowed up almost a week – yet by the time they reached polling day, “not a single Tory MP ever brought it up”.

Meanwhile, Rachel Reeves was front and centre, getting ahead on Labour’s aim to fight the election on the economy and pre-empting attacks on tax, even securing a Daily Mail splash on her plans. It quickly dispelled the idea that Labour must fight general elections relying on the classic “you’ve got six weeks to save the NHS” line. 

“That built a wall of armour for the rest of the campaign,” says a source close to Reeves. The Tory attacks never quite worked, they say, because “a) it felt like they got there too late, and b) it felt like we’d already done enough on the reassurance to get through it”.

That is not to say the early stages of Labour’s campaign were entirely smooth. Everyone agrees that the row over whether to block veteran MP Diane Abbott from standing was a key failure. “It was very distracting and unpleasant and damaging, and dragged on for several days,” a Labour MP tells The House

Those close to the leadership still cannot explain why exactly the row exploded, saying they never saw Abbott in the same light as, say, Jeremy Corbyn, and had always assumed it would be tidied up in a way that worked for both sides. “The Diane stuff was obviously messy – none of us wanted to be in that place,” a senior source concedes. “On a macro level, I don’t think it was harming us with swings in the polls or anything. But it was not ideal.”

One Labour political adviser believes the incident revealed that management of the grid was not good enough. “The second week of our campaign was really difficult. Why was Diane a story for three days? We didn’t have anything to knock it off the front page,” they say, likening Labour HQ to swans appearing serene but paddling furiously under the water’s surface.

“I would say the machine really kicked in for Keir and Rachel, less so for everyone else,” another adviser agrees. (“The pads knew nothing about the central operation – they are effectively acting as commentators,” a senior Labour source hits back.)

“The Bangladesh comments were considered Starmer’s only major misstep in the campaign. He was otherwise, in the words of one Labour MP’s aide, 'gloriously boring'”

The small number of spokespeople allowed on to the airwaves – limited mainly to Starmer and Reeves, plus Pat McFadden, Wes Streeting, Bridget Phillipson, Darren Jones and Jonathan Ashworth – meant other shadow cabinet members and their political advisers were at times deflated.

While some staffers based outside party offices in Southwark are critical, inside HQ and among candidates loyal to the leadership there is huge praise for the operation led by McSweeney and the McFaddens, Pat and Marianna. 

As national campaign co-ordinator, Pat McFadden chaired three meetings a day at HQ and did so much broadcast that by the end of the campaign the often stony-faced Glaswegian – usually thought of as a safe messenger but not a star like Streeting – was positively charming and chuckling his way through big interviews. Insiders started describing him as “genial” and “well-humoured”; already known for his competence, there is little doubt he will play a major role in government.

Ashworth was the other star of the campaign according to Labour sources, who said so before the shadow paymaster general lost his Leicester South seat in one of the most shocking results of the election.

As well as doing solid media rounds, he kept journalists amused on the campaign bus, and led press conferences that did not change the dynamics of the race but kept spirits high. In one, he dramatically shredded the Tory manifesto, getting “the loudest cheer of the campaign when the shredder worked”, recalls a senior Labour source, “with a twinkle in his eye – he knows it’s all theatre”. (His nickname last time he was in No 10 was, after all, “Jonny Sparkle”.) These events were useful for giving exhausted staffers “a bit of joy”.

In another boost to morale, Southwark staffers were visited by US Democrat Nancy Pelosi before the election was called, and by Tony Blair during the campaign. The former prime minister gave a pep talk in which he is said to have told them: “There is nobody here that I wouldn’t want on my team.” HQ sources say it made them feel united in purpose and highlighted that there were no “disrupters” among them.

Although the Labour HQ team is young, including many who have never worked on a general election campaign and certainly never a winning one, campaign leads were impressed by their resilience. “We didn’t bring in a load of grey beards who won in 2001 or whatever,” notes a Labour source. “We were rammed in like sardines in there. It could’ve been uncomfortable, sweaty and miserable, but people really rallied round each other.”

One staffer who does have experience of Labour’s 2001 campaign, having assisted the late Margaret McDonagh as Blair’s general secretary, is David Evans. Amid internal criticism, the general secretary was often rumoured to be on the brink of dismissal during the first two years of his tenure. Yet he held on, and colleagues now say he deserves credit for the hiring and firing that ensured Labour had a strong election team.

“The kind of campaign that would have been all ‘buzz buzz buzz, I’m so excited’ just misreads the mood of the country”

“The professionalisation of the campaign was striking and not to be underestimated. It just worked,” says another new Labour MP. Why? “More talent and more trust. There has been fairly ruthless promotion of good people.”

One battle-hardened staffer close to Starmer praises McSweeney and takes the opportunity to reflect on the early days of the current leadership. “The amount of mud that was thrown at all of us, particularly in those early days… We can spend the next few weeks collecting that mud and taking it back home.”

Starmer’s chief of staff Sue Gray, director of external relations Vidhya Alakeson, and chief operating officer John Lehal, who also reached out to candidates about their personal safety, all come in for particular praise as being able to bring external experience into the party and raise standards. A senior source says Gray, who was focused on preparations for government, worked well with McSweeney, contrary to the “Gray versus the boys” narrative.

Although the operation was widely characterised as focused and disciplined, there was frustration among ethnic minority MPs and staffers over Labour’s flawed community relations. Such critics highlighted that the campaign group had just one ethnic minority member and the core strategy group of 10 was all white.

This feeling was exacerbated first by the Abbott row and second by Starmer citing Bangladesh as a safe country to which migrants who arrive via an illegal route could be returned. A clip of the exchange, along with a message urging a vote against Labour, spread quickly on WhatsApp and provoked fury among Bangladeshi voters who highlighted how few people travelled from Bangladesh to the UK on small boats. Labour said the video had been edited and was “misinformation”, though Starmer also admitted he had been “clumsy”.

Labour MPs predict that unless Starmer addresses this weakness in government, he will encounter further problems, both electorally and in terms of party management. “It’s not good for Keir to go into No 10 pissing off this many people,” a shadow minister at the time said. “They may stay quiet now but there’ll be trouble once we’re in government.” The trouble arguably started on polling day, when the party lost five seats to pro-Palestinian independent candidates.

The Bangladesh comments were considered Starmer’s only major misstep in the campaign. He was otherwise, in the words of one Labour MP’s aide, “gloriously boring”: “Keir stayed rigidly on message. He didn’t give people a reason to be scared.” 

The Labour leader’s “gentlemanly” performance in the head-to-head TV debates did not impress, given his failure in the first one to promptly challenge Sunak’s attack line on tax. The House understands that Starmer himself did not feel he had lived up to what he wanted to do in that debate. He was much happier with the audience Q&A at the Beth Rigby leaders’ special, with aides believing he came across as both assertive and empathetic. Towards the end of the campaign Labour insiders could draw a flattering contrast with US President Joe Biden, who showed what a truly terrible debate looked like.

Elsewhere in the air war, campaign staff say Labour’s attack unit secured 250 bits of coverage and 160 stories, with a junior team doing “extraordinary work”. But others say lines were more difficult to land because the worst stories were coming from the Tories themselves, from D-Day to gambling. At one point, a senior Labour figure claims they even had to brief in favour of the Conservatives because journalists were writing them off. This also contributed to Labour finding it hard to sustain any one argument, with policies such as new nursery places – a manifesto commitment intended to be prominent – getting little attention.

Perhaps most highly commended was Labour’s digital campaign, led by director of digital Tom Lillywhite. The party’s memes and other shareable online content, quick decision-making  on advertising spend, and recent investment in new staff and training paid off.

“We completely dominated the digital space, when the Tories used to be a lot better than us at that,” observes one MP. A Labour source says the party’s operations just a couple of years ago were “as digital as a Casio calculator”.

This time around, canvassers were impressed by updates to the Doorstep app, used for logging the outcomes of conversations with voters, being implemented during the campaign. Labour’s YouTube ads were also thought to have had a significant impact.

“We’re going to need to govern as insurgents. You cannot be sucked into becoming the blob”

Activists and candidates were divided over the ground campaign, specifically the allocation of resources to “battleground” seats that some believed had become winnable, even if they were no-hopers according to recent electoral history. 

One example of a non-battleground was Romford, which had its activists sent to Dagenham and Rainham; ultimately, the former was lost by fewer than 1,500 votes, and the latter held with a majority of over 7,000. Sittingbourne and Sheppey was one of the seats that had its access to Contact Creator – Labour’s system for registering voting intentions – blocked after being deemed to have spoken to too many voters. Labour won it by 355 votes.

Others defended the cautious approach to seat targeting. “The job of the party is not to go wild around targets of opportunity. It’s to get us across the line,” one candidate, now an MP, said at the time. “Everything else is like the cherry on the cake.”

Although Labour’s campaign was widely perceived as safe, senior sources deny the famous “Ming vase strategy” was pursued. They point out that the number of voters targeted was ambitious and, on policy, the party was prepared to take on politically difficult arguments such as planning reform. 

Was Labour’s successful campaign merely average yet benefiting from Tory disasters, as some suggest? “The kind of campaign that would have been all ‘buzz buzz buzz, I’m so excited’ just misreads the mood of the country. So many people’s doors I knocked on, they just thought ‘everyone’s full of shit’,” says a new Labour MP.

The party deliberately went into the general election without the usual ambition of putting a plethora of exciting promises to voters, who were considered too sceptical to believe any such policies would have been deliverable. “Most voters saw: Keir stopped Jeremy Corbyn running, said change a lot, and sounded vaguely professional. Keeping it simple is what gets cut-through,” the MP adds.

This was also a reflection of the governance reality that Labour was ready to encounter, party sources say. It is unusual for a new government to be coming in at a time when both public services are in a dire state and taxes are at a record high – typically it’s either one or the other.

Arguably the central turning point in the campaign was Nigel Farage announcing his decision to lead Reform UK and stand for Parliament again – but the surge was largely ignored by Labour. That approach may become more difficult in government. Labour insiders predict the party will face a populist front, which spans from left to right, challenging Starmer’s government with an anti-establishment message.

Labour’s answer to that problem is real delivery on achievable goals. This links back to its reason for offering a limited set of policies: people have heard it all before and they don’t believe politics can make a difference. There is a recognition in the leadership that the “very Keir and Rachel approach” of immediately “getting on with the hard work of changing things” won’t be enough, however.

During this general election campaign, thought was already going into the bid to secure a second term. “The job won’t be done, but there has been progress, and the country is on the way back up,” a senior Labour source says they hope to be able to tell voters in 2029. “It was faith you put in Labour and now you can put your trust in us.” 

In the meantime, they add: “We’re going to need to govern as insurgents. You cannot be sucked into becoming the blob.” 

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