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Inside the Labour Party's overhauled campaign machine ahead of the general election

12 min read

Rochdale was a reminder that things can go badly wrong in unexpected ways, so Labour’s campaign machine must be well-oiled. Sienna Rodgers reports on the effort to get it into shape in time for the election

Meet the ‘hero voter’, the Leave-backing elector who plumped for Boris Johnson in 2019 but could now swing behind Keir Starmer. These are the “voters worth two” that are the focus of Labour’s overhauled campaign operation.

Labour’s general secretary David Evans recently described party HQ as feeling “a bit like a building site” following the painful restructuring he oversaw to deal with “profound problems”. The recent shambles in Rochdale underscored the point that the overhaul is, at best, a work in progress. But, haunted by past defeats, there is no denying the fevered industry of those getting the machine election-ready – with those ‘hero voters’ front and centre. 

“Behind the scenes, [Morgan McSweeney] is nervous. He knows that, very quickly, it could all fall apart”

The staffing changes have been vast. As well as normal organisers, Labour now has 100 trainee organisers and digital trainees; the party is also currently hiring yet more trainee organisers, plus regional organisers, mobilisation assistants and social media organisers. There are now more than 40 regional digital staff, delivering online content and working with candidates to improve their ability to fight a modern campaign.

Evans recently gave a revealing account of how the party has changed while speaking on a panel at a one-day Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) conference. “Prosaically, we exited 100 people from the organisation. We had to take £5.5m out of the bottom line because we were spending money we didn’t have,” he said, referring to the controversial staff cuts at the start of his tenure.

“We tried to turn the party inside out in terms of making it voter-focused, not internally focused. All of that had to be done at the same time as addressing profound problems with structure, culture, capability and process. It still feels a bit like a building site, I have to say. But if you have to build anything that lasts, you’ve got to get the foundations right, and I really think we have a tremendous staff body now. We’ve invested heavily in field, digital and comms, which are the three areas where we were absolutely lost last time.”

Labour’s determination to level up its capabilities is part of an overarching mission to transform the party, but it also comes from a fundamental feeling of insecurity. Labour Together think tank director Josh Simons has warned that what voters say a year out from an election is a poor guide to how they actually vote on the day. “It is a mistake to think that what a polling lead of 20 points is telling you is that that many people will vote Labour,” he told Labour activists at the same JLM conference. “Expect the polls to narrow.” 

Party insiders say this is not merely expectation management. Morgan McSweeney, the former head of Labour Together, now the party’s elections director, is said to be more anxious than he appears. “Behind the scenes, he is nervous. He knows that, very quickly, it could all fall apart,” reports a member of Labour’s ruling body, the national executive committee (NEC).

McSweeney, along with deputy national campaign coordinator Ellie Reeves, repeatedly reminds officials of Labour’s strict target seat strategy. Compared to 2019, one candidate says, the party is “much more focused on seats we actually have to win”. They explain: “Morgan’s big spiel is not just ‘no complacency’, which we’ve all heard before, but also about how we’re not going to be wasting resources on seats we’re definitely going to win or seats we definitely can’t win.”

Yet every time a by-election crops up, the strategy is disrupted. In the last 12 months, Labour has overturned whopping Conservative majorities in Selby and Ainsty, Tamworth, Mid Bedfordshire, and most recently Kingswood, and Wellingborough. The problem with winning by-elections in seats previously considered unwinnable is that people expect you to keep doing it – and that’s an expensive habit.

“The by-elections have been a mixed blessing,” said Luke Akehurst, influential NEC member and secretary of ‘old Labour right’ group Labour First, at the conference. “They have been brilliant for increasing the skills of staff and members. And every time we win one, you do get that amazing burst of morale boost and positive coverage. But they are very debilitating in terms of what they’ve squeezed out of the rest of the organisation.”

Every by-election in a competitive seat is a roll of the dice. The party allocates close to the spending limit of £100,000 and diverts huge numbers of organisers to the constituency. It either wins a new MP and 24 hours of good news stories or suffers an embarrassing defeat that can shift the media narrative dramatically and cause intra-party tensions, as happened with Uxbridge last summer.

And all this is done in seats that would not ordinarily be targets. “We’re having to fight places that were way off the end of the scale of anything that we would ever normally target, like Mid Bedfordshire, but there’s an expectation that we’re going to go after them,” Akehurst added.

The main benefit of by-elections is that they present the perfect opportunity to innovate and test campaign techniques. “Mid Bedfordshire being a nice-to-have meant we could try new things,” a Labour source tells The House.

The party identified from the start that the result would come down to a difference between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, so the focus was on visibility. That was a hard ask in a constituency made up of 48 tiny towns and villages. Predicting that voters would still be making up their minds on the way to their polling station, the Labour campaign decided to push yard signs hard, ensuring candidate (now MP) Alistair Strathern’s face could be seen by as many people as possible on the day.

As well as filtering its campaigning efforts through the prism of 150 battleground seats, Labour is targeting a set of electors it calls “hero voters” – those who backed Brexit and voted Tory in 2019 but may be persuaded to support Labour next time. The broader ambition is to “de-risk” the party, as Labour Together puts it, so that those voters are not frightened of a Starmer-led government.

Evans has been candid about Labour targeting “more working-class, more socially conservative voters” and said the party has “started to see them come back to us”. “That wasn’t happening until 12 months or so ago,” he told Labour members at the JLM conference. “That’s where the battle is.”

The general secretary added that there would be “no apologies for that being our focus” because “those voters are worth two”, concluding: “They’re not racist, they’re not prejudiced – they’ve faced huge challenges and have not felt safe.” Labour is mindful of research showing that support from the group that voted Conservative in 2019 is soft and these are the most volatile of all voters.

To firm up support among ‘hero voters’, Labour has launched a new “persuasion pathway” initiative on the doorstep. Instead of starting with “sorry to bother you”, activists are told simply to introduce themselves, and when a voter answers the door, the script tells Labour members not to launch straight into voting intention but instead ask what the resident is interested in talking about. “We’re giving before we get,” as Evans puts it.

After discussing issues of concern, only then will the canvasser ask which party the resident would support if there were a general election tomorrow. Then the ‘one-to-10 scale’ comes into play: the voter is asked to put a number on how likely they are to consider backing Labour. The scale has allowed the party to segment the electorate more effectively and gather data to inform follow-ups. If the voter offers a number between eight and 10, Labour will hope to sign them up for a postal vote; if it is between four and seven, “squeeze messaging” will be used in calls and letters. 

“The main thing we want from people now is a phone number,” says one Labour activist. “The other thing we want to get from the voter is their local issues, so the candidate knows what to talk about when they call them.” Generally, the script has become more important, sources say. Another canvasser tells The House: “David Evans is keen on activists being well-briefed. You’ll have noticed there’s more discipline for MPs, but the big emphasis on discipline comes across to canvassers too.”

The scale is particularly useful because Labour’s support among those crucial hero voters is so soft. “People are fed up with this government, but they’re not in love with us. There is broad apathy. That question will let you focus your efforts on where it needs to be,” says one Labour candidate. 

Activists have told The House that Labour’s digital tools and materials have seen marked improvements, with refreshed visual assets and brand guidelines now easily accessible online. And the party is providing leaflets that are centrally organised but tailored to each constituency.

Reselected MPs are pleased, too, that they will benefit from a centralised system to produce their printed materials for the short campaign. It will free their (sometimes unpaid) agents and organisers from hours struggling with Labour Connects, a website for candidates to produce their own printed material. “My agent was pulling his hair out trying to make it work at the last election,” recalls one Labour MP.

“They’ve jacked up the national expenditure limits – almost doubled it – because Rishi can find it down the back of his settee”

Candidates have also expressed gratitude that they have been treated like adults by being invited to regular briefings with senior party figures. Several were held on the difficult issue of Gaza. “There were some really tough questions from the candidates for Yvette [Cooper] and for David [Lammy],” says one Labour candidate, who believes the party is bestowing such access to front benchers “partly because they know that the crop of candidates they’ve got, broadly, are really good”. (These comments were made before the Rochdale fiasco that saw two candidates suspended.) 

Such high-level access comes with pressure, however. Every Friday evening, McSweeney emails candidates a “bulletin” with campaign updates including a “contact league table”. The table shows each constituency, the candidate and their “contacts” – the number of voters they have spoken to – over the last week and month. Any recipient can scroll to the bottom of the list to find comrades with a shameful nul points.

The practice touches on an area that the Labour left emphasises as a problem: mobilisation. It was a point of pride for Corbynites that they could easily attract hundreds of activists to a campaign event in a single seat; now that the party has fewer members and no organisation akin to Momentum, getting people out on the doorstep requires more effort.

“They are worried about the lack of people being engaged, going out, knocking on doors,” says a prominent figure on the left of the party. “We see all these people turn up at by-elections, but when it’s the general election and everybody’s got to be all out everywhere, that’s when we’ll see how bare we are.”

It is not only Starmer’s critics who say there is still work to be done. “I don’t think we’re firing on every cylinder yet on member mobilisation. That is a big task between now and the general election,” Luke Akehurst said. “We need to be squeezing every bit of person time that we can out of our just under 400,000 members – that is a lot of people that we have got that the Tories, in terms of age and numbers, do not have. It’s an inbuilt advantage for us.”

The other potentially weaker area – at least when compared to the Conservatives – is fundraising. Again, David Evans was remarkably straightforward when discussing this at a recent panel event, saying the party was “busting a gut” to increase donations.

“They’ve jacked up the national expenditure limits – almost doubled it – because Rishi can find it down the back of his settee, and we have to work very, very hard to get anywhere near it. But we are working hard. I’m confident that we will get there, or thereabouts, because we can’t let the Tories outspend us massively in the short campaign when voters who currently aren’t terribly plugged in will be plugged in the nearer we get.”

The general secretary revealed he was pursuing every avenue for money: high-net-worth individuals (“we have more… high-value donors than ever before”); affiliates (“there are some very positive signs that our affiliates will be recognising just what a seismic election this is”); and small donations (inspired by the Democrats in the United States, he said Labour will extend its donation ask to supporters who are not members). Labour has also launched a lottery: “That is already built, bringing in something like a quarter of million pounds a year… Tories make £800,000 from theirs, so my target is before the election to significantly beat them.”

Candidates are naturally keen for funds to reach their seats. “We see these headlines saying the Labour Party have got millions of pounds in the bank, and we’re like, ‘oh, we could do with £2,000’,” one Labour candidate in a target seat tells The House.

Labour has clearly refined its approach on the doorstep, and ramped up its campaigning capacity with huge investment in staff and training. The question now is whether the impressive progress made so far in these areas can be equalled in activist mobilisation and fundraising. 

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