Now that the last parliament has come and gone, I have taken to looking back on certain aspects of what I saw and went through. I think Labour’s position during the AV campaign bears some reflection.
As someone who worked in the centre of the Yes to AV campaign, it goes without saying that we waited far too long to set up a separate Labour wing of the campaign, particularly given how crucial a segment of the populace we knew from the beginning Labour voters were going to be. While the No bunch were parked in Portcullis House lobbying Labour MPs directly (it was later said that the battle against AV was won within the Labour party with cakes and biscuits) we mostly sat on our hands in this respect. We needed people with the appropriate connections to make inroads into the Parliamentary Labour Party, but by the time we got around to trying it was too late.
Many of the Lib Dems involved in the campaign thought that by getting Ed Miliband on board we had essentially sown Labour up. This was an extremely politically naïve reading of the Labour Party. It is a party that even at the most dictatorially led of times is very horizontally structured and multi-faceted – and it goes without saying that under Ed “I agree with everyone wearing a red rosette” Miliband, this was even more true than usual.
The Labour party is also a very closed shop. Everyone has this idea that the Tories are closely aligned with the various public affairs and lobbying agencies in London, but in actual fact they are somewhat Luddite when it comes to this kind of thing generally. Most Conservative MPs, with a little nagging and persuading, will have a cup of coffee with you if you work for a single issue organisation, even if said organisation is deemed to not be particularly Tory friendly. Meanwhile, if you want to have a chat with a Labour MP, even a new intake backbencher, you are likely to have to encounter someone from a PR company that “deals with” the extra-parliamentary affairs of said MP. It’s as if all Labour Members of Parliament are rock stars (“speak to my agent”). Even then, after you’ve ploughed through all of those companies offering to shine a light on the “dark arts”, you’re most likely to only get to see the MP’s researcher. I don’t think this tendency has anything to do with the innate ideologies of the parties in question. I think it’s just a holdover from New Labour. When the Tories were last in power with a majority of their own before May 7th, 2015, politics had not yet reached the 24-hour news cycle phase. Labour just happened to be in power during the period when the sound bite became all-powerful and therefore they remain somewhat enthralled to the professionals who know how to best make use of it and the assumed protection that comes with that. The PLP remain overly terrified of their “enemies”, those whom they feel are out to get them. This paranoia may very well be justified, by the way: we saw many Tories get attacked during the course of the last parliament in a way that more adherence to the public relations stream could have at least palliated.
What all of this boiled down to for the Yes to AV campaign was that we needed someone who understood the system, someone who would have joined the campaign at its genesis who could have helped greatly to swing a greater portion of Labour MPs our way. As a for instance, an ex-Labour MP lobbying current Labour MPs in Portcullis House. This kind of ground warfare was never really practically considered, a grave and perhaps fatal error.
Labour Yes, set up in March 2011, had its occasional moments and was probably more efficiently run than many portions of the campaign (the bar is low here, however, I’ll stress). But there were inevitable problems. Due to the very tribal nature of the Labour party, grudges tend to be deeply held and long carried. Therefore, everyone working for Labour Yes was very mindful of the fact that while yes, winning AV would be grand, it was not worth fucking off Margaret McDonaugh for the rest of eternity. This became a problem because even though Labour MPs and peers on the No side of the equation were continually saying stupid shit (the classic being when one Labour Baroness mindlessly said to a newspaper reporter “It’s funny isn’t it – a Labour campaign being paid for by the Conservative party?”) there was an extreme reluctance to act on these instances.
In the end, I don’t think Labour Yes could have made much difference given how late into the equation they entered. It was too close to polling day and the situation within the Labour party was far too settled by then. Everyone had chosen a side already. So the lesson here for all budding referendum campaigners is this: if you think a particular political party is going to win or lose you the referendum, best to make sure very early on that you’re doing everything you can to win them round. Sounds almost childishly simple when you write it down like that, almost unnecessary to say aloud, and yet the Yes campaign didn’t think to do it for about nine months. On May 5th itself we saw the full result of this failed opportunity to try and get more of the PLP on board while there was still time. The local elections, held on the very same day in huge swathes of the country, featured the Labour doorknockers urging their folks to “Vote Labour, Vote No.” Given the Tory ground campaigners were telling their people to vote Conservative, vote no, you can see the pickle we ended up in. When the full force of the ground campaigns of the two largest political parties in the country are fully trained against you in what is a binary vote, you are well and truly stuffed. If only we’d thought of the cakes and biscuits sooner.