As local elections approach in the United Kingdom, the danger of overconfidence becomes a very real one for Labour. A year ago, the Tories were sure they would snuff Labour out as an electoral force. Instead, Corbynism deprived Theresa May of a majority, ending a neoliberal consensus that had prevailed for a generation. The result left the party membership and much of its support base exuberant. Yet, the Labour party, nationally and at London level, is guilty of failing to manage expectations. Despite recent government chaos over the Windrush scandal, Labour has spent the last few weeks in a defensive posture against a media onslaught that has undoubtedly had an impact.
Yes, polls suggest Labour is on course to win the best results of any party in the capital in more than 40 years. But George Osborne’s London Evening Standard and No 10 Downing Street’s spin doctors have hyped up the prospect of Conservative Armageddon — hoping to frighten Tory voters to polling stations, suppress the Labour vote through complacency, and make any Labour gains seem insufficient. Unless the party’s grass roots turn out to vote, historic prizes will remain out of reach.
Labour’s electoral goals would, in a not too distant age, have been seen as otherworldly, and the party’s current challenges nice to have. Westminster, Barnet and Kensington and Chelsea are all Tory citadels in the capital that have never surrendered to the wooing of Labour, and the party has never won a majority in Barnet, not even in the age of the poll tax or a national Conservative meltdown. Wandsworth, in south London, was last in the red column when James Callaghan was prime minister four decades ago: Labour has never amassed the number of wards it needs to win there in one go. One ward Labour needs to gain in Wandsworth to win the council has an average property value of £1.3 million (Dh6.81 million). Labour is seeking to win wards in Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, which are home to Buckingham Palace and Harrods. Outside London, only a third of some councils’ seats are up for grabs, making Portsmouth impossible to win, and Trafford, in Manchester — last held by Labour 15 years ago — extremely challenging.
Labour’s big asset, of course, is a mass membership: I’ve spent the last few weeks with Momentum, mobilising thousands of activists as part of a national campaign called Unseat. Many are young people who are campaigning for the first time — such as the 19-year-old daughter of two Norfolk United Kingdom Independence Party voters, or 17-year-old Frank, who travels to campaign days from Lewes in East Sussex. This politicisation of young people isn’t covered enough: The idea of teenagers taking trains and buses across the country en masse to canvass in local elections would be far-fetched in my own younger days. This campaigning is particularly critical for Labour. Those most likely to vote are older, white, more affluent people, who strongly lean towards the Tories.
Both are disillusioned with politics and had no intention of voting. It takes a prolonged conversation to convince them otherwise. There are younger voters who may spontaneously break out into chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!” but remain distinctly unenthused by local elections. Some have got in touch to ask me what local elections are, which is unsurprising in a country that does so little to educate its citizens about politics.
The campaigning is critical for another reason. Labour began the last general election campaign with catastrophic polling. Critical to reversing the party and leader’s poor popularity ratings were the broadcasting impartiality rules.
In these elections, Labour has faced a relentless media barrage, with very few sympathisers in the press to challenge it: The party’s enemies are defining it again. Its policies — such as free bus travel for the under-25s, or linking housing affordability to people’s incomes — were covered in the press, but received no broadcast coverage.
Britain’s national media has shown extremely limited interest in the elections, leaving it off the radar for many. Doorstep campaigning, therefore, takes on a particularly critical function, both bypassing a hostile media and raising awareness that there are even elections on.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist.