This article was originally written for Labour Uncut and can also be found here.
Douglas Alexander called it the “word of mouth election”. Gordon Brown said it would be fought “street by street, school-gate by school-gate, workplace by workplace”. And now Labour leadership candidates trip over each other as they scrabble to praise our grassroots supporters.
I spent the election campaigning for Vernon Coaker in Gedling, the only key seat retained in the East Midlands. What I saw there was a campaign with local activism at its heart that produced a victory many thought unlikely.
In the speech announcing Labour’s campaign pledges back in February, our then Prime Minister said that the party’s secret weapons in the upcoming election were our beliefs and our policies. This was true. But our other secret weapon was each and every supporter of the Labour party. Those people who were out talking to voters, come rain, shine, or (as was the case many times in Gedling) snow.
Those people who understood the value of face-to-face contact and listening to voters’ issues. Those people who spread the word about our beliefs and our policies.
The Tories may have had money, but even after three terms we had something more valuable: people willing to donate their time and efforts to the cause.
A marginal seat and once a Conservative strong-hold, the bookies predicted Gedling would to fall to the Tories. So why didn’t it?
Quite simply, Vernon’s personal popularity and the hours of campaigning put in by Labour supporters turned the situation around. His dedication to his constituents and case work has given the MP a great reputation in his constituency – something all MPs, new and old, should bear in mind.
Out campaigning, the high esteem his constituents hold him in is clear; an extraordinary number of people tell you stories of how he helped them – and it helps that he seems to have taught half of Gedling’s population during his time as a teacher at Big Wood School.
Of course, there were other factors involved: issues like unpopular car-parking charges implemented by the Tory Council remind us that all politics is local.
At times it felt like the entire national media were ranged against us, trying to make victory impossible for Labour. And while we did not win a fourth term in government, we should not lose heart. We should look to the places like Gedling where we were successful and learn from them. Our grassroots activism may not have won us the national election (not this time, at least), but it did win us key individual seats and prevented defeat turning into electoral meltdown.
So, what did I learn from my time campaigning? And what can others learn from it? I learnt that ordinary, grassroots members DO make a difference. A tremendous difference. If we fight, if we believe and if we organise, we can win.