Monday, 30 June 2014

That Election Result - One Month On

“What do you think you’ll do now?” asked Ruth Cadbury, long-time Brentford Labour councillor and Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Brentford and Isleworth, at the local election count last month.

“That’s easy,” I replied. “I’m going for a beer”.

It would be an overstatement to say I’d sidestepped the question. As far as I was concerned a well-earned drink once the formal business of the day was finally done was as long ahead as I could be bothered to contemplate at that particular moment in time.

The ICG had just fought what had without doubt been its hardest, most high-intensity election campaign in its twenty-year history. More literature had gone out, more doors had been knocked, and more residents spoken to on the doorsteps than in 2002, 2006 or 2010. The outcome of it all had been a substantial defeat. We had held second place in both Syon and Isleworth, indeed widening the gap between ourselves and the third-placed Tories from the previous contest in 2010, to the obvious surprise and disappointment of the victorious Labour teams, but we were still a very long way behind Labour in both.


This, according to the script which had been written in earnest by Labour strategists in the immediate aftermath of 2010, was the contest following which the ICG would finally chuck in the towel and collectively take up fishing. That’s not going to happen, so in that much at least the Labour gameplan had failed to come to fruition notwithstanding the party’s decisive win at the polls.

But there was no hiding from the scoreline – the ICG’s vote had been pinned back to 1998 levels whilst Labour had chalked up tallies of 1500 to 2000 and beyond in every ward outside of Chiswick. The Tories were down to eleven seats (which came almost as a relief to them after persistent whispers of a total wipeout in Osterley and Spring Grove) and the spectacularly mismanaged UKIP adventure had predictably ended in tears.

As always many things were said on all sides during the course of the campaign, and one comment on a local Internet forum from a perennial Labour Party mouthpiece to the effect that “voters aren’t buying into ICG ideology” repeated on me in the light of the result. The lady in question, whilst no longer an activist nor even technically a party member, is nevertheless somebody who wields influence with Labour in Isleworth and who would have been relaying feedback from the stump rather than speculating.

Nevertheless I believe she is wrong. Or wrong at least if the point she was trying to make was that voters who had formerly supported the ICG are now consciously rebelling against attempts to involve them in decision-making and preferring instead the lazy option of deliberately electing politicians who will make decisions on their behalf based upon their own agendas rather than having consideration for the wishes of the wider public. The idea that electors who just a few years before had marched against library closures and embraced litigation against Thames Water over Mogden have suddenly decided to put their placards down and to collectively present their backsides to be kicked makes absolutely no sense at all.

In support of my view I would cite Labour’s own election material, excellent as it was in its layout and presentation, in which the party’s “community” credentials were given pride of place. From (definitely false) claims that Isleworth’s Labour councillors had fought to save Isleworth Public Hall for the community to (probably false) promises that no libraries or community centres will be closed during this administration, Labour outgunned the ICG not by trumping our ideology with its own, but by persuading a good many of our erstwhile voters that it now shared our primary concerns and could at last be trusted with the (our) family silver.


That Labour’s campaigning techniques are now immensely superior to those it had adopted during earlier contests was also a major factor. It is hard to credit that in 2006, when we won all six seats across Isleworth and Syon wards, Labour did not put out a solitary leaflet in the latter, far less knock on a single door. Instead its “campaign” during that year was apparently based entirely upon an assumption that the party would win simply because the locals had a duty to give it their support. Or that in those days ours were the only candidates who paid particular attention to wooing postal voters.

Today we find ourselves up against campaigns in which canvassing data provided by ward activists is processed and responded to by a central, computerised and often salaried party machine, in which individual letters tailored as “responses” to individual concerns can be mailed to individual voters without any extra effort having to be expended by the local teams, which themselves are fortified by squads of activists drafted in from other areas. Tens of thousands of voters throughout the borough were known to have been contacted by telephone canvassers, and none of this takes into account the additional ballast of Labour election material coming through the letterboxes in support of the party’s European election efforts, which would have had some kind of positive spin-off for the local teams however unintended.

But then again all the same things can be said about the Conservatives, who had some very impressive candidates in the field (Fadi Farhat in Isleworth and Ron Mushiso in Syon spring immediately to mind) as well as some less inspiring ones . They too (absurdly) channeled most of their efforts into wards such as Isleworth and Syon, leaving themselves more vulnerable than they needed to have done in marginal areas such as Hounslow South (which they lost) and Osterley & Spring Grove (where they dropped a seat). They too contacted thousands of voters by telephone, and drafted in outside help on the stump, not least from their sitting Member of Parliament. They too produced a dazzling portfolio of glossy, money-no-object leaflets. Even so they once again came in in third place in both wards, just proving the old adage that one cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.


Labour’s victory in the ICG’s target wards, thus, was not down primarily in my opinion to the vastly superior resources that it was able to call upon, although that undoubtedly was a big factor, but to the (for us) unhappy convergence of an unpopular Tory-led government with a feeling amongst residents that the time had come to trust a local Labour Party which at last was proclaiming the virtues of community engagement, even if (as some old cynics believe) it did so with fingers firmly crossed.

It is worth relating that having spent several months on the doorsteps speaking, and listening, to many thousands of local voters, I didn’t encounter any hostility whatsoever towards the ICG – other than, of course, from one or two who had been hostile to us to begin with, whom I had called upon partly in the forlorn hope that they might have had a change of heart and partly out of devilment. Nobody had “turned” on us per se. But what I did to be honest witness, and almost exclusively from those whose “traditional” sympathies had been with Labour before they had turned to the ICG in the first place, was a tangible dilution of their enthusiasm towards us. Many who had told us in previous contests that they would “definitely” be voting for us were telling us this time that we could “probably” count on them (which as any experienced canvasser will confirm translates into “probably not”).

In the event it was our trusted core support – those who have become almost “traditional ICG supporters” now that our participation has extended over several contests – who stuck with us. In a conversation with a Labour councillor recently I joked that I could almost name the people who voted for us this time around – an exaggeration, but not a ludicrous one. This was particularly so in those areas where one would expect the Tories to perform relatively well. In the owner-occupied areas of Isleworth ward, off the Worple Road and around Old Isleworth (ironically the areas targeted by the “UKIP” candidates, presumably at Labour’s suggestion) we outperformed Labour, whilst the Tories received proportionately fewer votes, considerably fewer, than they did on Ivybridge. It would appear that the votes we had previously taken from the Conservatives remained with us, whilst those we had taken from Labour on the whole drifted back. This is worth bearing in mind because it means that, for the short term at least, Labour clearly now has a psephological as well as an ideological interest in us continuing to take part in elections.


Which brings me nicely to the question of where the ICG goes from here because it is clear that, more than ever before, any decision on our part to abandon the electoral path (a logical decision on account of the growing disparity in resources between community-based candidates and national political parties) is unlikely to meet with the approval of our erstwhile Labour opponents. It was, in my view, our biggest mistake of the 2010-2014 period that our decision as to whether or not to stand this time around was permitted to hang so much on us receiving that approval. We should never again, in my opinion, allow our critics to set the agenda for us in such a way – our strategy henceforth must be determined solely by what suits us and our community best.

Labour’s victory, both in our target wards and across the borough, was massive, but perhaps ironically the local party is now inevitably a prisoner of its own success. With an “official” Conservative opposition which is not only small in number but also weak, demoralised and stale (the “newest” amongst them – Sam Hearn – having been first elected to the Council at a by-election in 2008) the temptation for local Labour to revive its proud tradition of factional infighting will be tremendous. Amid all this, those Isleworth and Syon voters who “returned” to Labour from the ICG on account of its commitments to community-building are unlikely to respond favourably to any reversion to the bad old ways. Having made the commitment, Labour is now obligated to deliver.

Will it do so? The signals, as is so often the case, are mixed and in some respects conflicting. Our aforementioned Labour forum correspondent has delivered herself of the interesting view that with the Conservatives in such utter disarray, Labour’s likely “opposition” will for the purposes of this administration be the ICG and the G15+ group of residents’ associations. Flattered though I was, being an active member of both, it ill portends that a political administration charged with the task of governing in the best interests of a whole community should instinctively consider organised groups of residents to be its opposition.

But can the views of one party spokesperson be accepted as those of an entire organisation? Particularly one that has historically been so fractious and factional?

Appointments to the new Cabinet may offer us some clue. The new Leader of the Council is Syon’s Steve Curran, who as an officer of the Griffin Park Residents’ Association a decade or so ago impressed me a great deal but who since, having been transformed from poacher into gamekeeper in his role as a senior councillor, has worried me in equal measure. On his watch Councillor Curran has overseen the demise of HFTRA (the Hounslow Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations) and the attempted marginalisation of G15+, but as Leader he may have fresh ideas (at the election count he assured me that he was in favour of a “HFTRA Mark 2” to give the tenants back their voice – I told him we would see soon enough whether this was so).

Perhaps more enlightening – or alternatively perhaps not – are the appointments of the community-minded Syon Councillor Theo Dennison as Lead Member for “Citizen Engagement”, and of Isleworth’s Sue Sampson for “Communities”, a role which includes as a subheader “Community Engagement”. There are all manner of permutations to be read into this one. Do they represent two factions, each appointed to a near-identical role by two different power blocs within the Labour Group? Has the Leader appointed both in the hope that they will counter-balance, maybe even neutralise, one another? Or are they to be two distinct roles in spite of the apparent similarities? It is known that Sue fought hard within the Labour Group to have this particular job appended to her portfolio – is it, for her, just about having the capacity to pour funding into pro-Labour community projects on her own patch (before anybody mentions it I have never suggested that Labour in Isleworth is anti-community per se, just that it has historically been highly selective about which community projects it embraces and which it opposes, invariably depending upon where said projects are perceived to stand politically)?


I have made it my business to try to find out more about where the administration is likely to be heading with all this. I have already had the benefit of long discussions with two prominent local Labour Party members, one following a chance encounter and the other by appointment. I am optimistic that at least some elements within the new administration, particularly much of the new intake, are serious about wanting to take a new and more enlightened approach to community engagement and I think that they at least should be supported by those of us within the community whose causes are likely to benefit from any success they might enjoy.

I also think we should be prepared, both as a community and (for the ICG) as an organisation, to be open-minded about whether local Labour as a whole is prepared, and indeed structured, to deliver on its promises. Those who are keen to may need our support or even our help in their struggles with those who are perhaps less so. It is my hope that, in such an event, the ICG’s support or help will be readily forthcoming.

Above all we need to remember why it is that we have fought elections in the first place – not through force of habit or because we as individuals desire to be councillors but because we want to realise specific objectives for our community. If those objectives can be realised in spite of our electoral defeat then there can be no valid argument for not recognising the fact and no justification for regarding the political powers that be as our adversaries any longer. No reason to fight against them.

There is an awful lot that we can achieve whilst free of the organisational straitjacket that being committed to fighting elections has consigned us to. It is a fresh new approach which I sincerely believe has, for us, come of age.


Anonymous said...

Although your analysis is probably insightful, it comes across as pompous, and you should run a spell-check!

Phil Andrews said...

"Channelled"? I'd spelt it the American way, many thanks for the heads-up. Please do let me know though if I've missed any more.

Any pomposity is entirely unintentional.

Anonymous said...

Pompous is what Phil does best.

After losing an election badly he writes chapter and verse telling us what the triumphant Labour councillors must do to get in his good books! Unfortunately two of them, presumably including Theo Dennison who rats on his own comrades, seem to be prepared to give him time of day, if Phil is to be believed.

What he didn't choose to tell you is that he tried to join the Labour party and was refused. His mug supporters then followed him into an election they couldn't win but none of them knew it was all a big sulk because he couldn't join and leave them all behind. He even said it in the Chronicle - if you can't join them beat them, although Phil can't do either lol.

That's of course if "Anonymous" isn't Phil posting under a false name. After all he's got form going back over many years, ask him about Molly Asante, Kevin Booth and M Mehta.

Anonymous said...

Phil, is there any truth in this?

Phil Andrews said...

Absolutely none whatsoever. This is one of my "regulars" who has a bee in his bonnet about me allegedly trying to join the Labour Party. Where he has got the notion from I've no idea but it is completely false.

Multiculturalist said...

For once I agree. The notion that you would ever apply to join the Labour Party is wholly counter-intuitive. More to the point the ‘anonymous’ comment posted at 22:16 on 2nd July is, if real, quite mean-spirited given the lack of rancour you’ve shown since the election. I say this in part because the aforementioned remark seems to be a parody of my own style and personally I think we all need to turn over a new leaf. Perhaps the best option would be to refrain from publishing comments that don’t add anything to the debate, but that’s your call.

Regarding the ICG, maybe its challenge failed because the impetus behind it has slipped in recent years. It can be difficult for a party to break through without a large base of traditional voters to rely on. In the absence of that it requires a full-time councillor or organiser to do the necessary hard graft – and not just at election times (as any self-respecting Liberal Focus activist will testify).

Possibly the ICG’s community newsletters became too few and far between during the 2010-14 period. The people who held up ICG placards outside Mogden probably did vote ICG and although the turnout for such rallies may have been impressive this needs to be seen in the context of a ward with 8,000 electors.

Some of your colleagues may be counting on Labour’s national popularity going into free-fall by the time of the next local elections, but that would seem unlikely: the underlying poll data suggests that the Tories will recover before the May 2015 General Election, causing Labour to spend another five years in opposition. This means Labour may be stronger by the time of the mid-term elections in 2018 and, as a consequence, even more difficult to shift in Isleworth and Syon.

I suspect the ICG will contest those elections (for the desire to ‘test the water’ will probably prove irresistible) but the group may need to learn to be more philosophical and accept a decent 2nd or even 3rd place as vindication for its existence – whilst at the same time ploughing a less electorally-focussed furrow. As long as the will is there it is sure to survive in some form.

Phil Andrews said...

Wow, thank you for a very positive contribution Robin (assuming that really is you). A new leaf sounds good, indeed I consider that mine has pretty much already been turned.

Yours is an interesting analysis. It may be that we could have done more between the two elections but I also think the outcome of May's election was down to much more than this (also remember that during this time we organised two well-supported marches against proposed closures and witnessed the Mogden High Court victory, so we were not exactly anonymous).

The fact is that up until a few years ago the big parties had become complacent to the point that the ICG's election campaigns, fought as they were on a shoestring, were nonetheless a lot more professional than theirs. Now the big parties have not only caught up with us but have substantially overtaken us, and with the ongoing development of publishing technology and data analysis this in my view was always inevitable.

But that having been said a hi-tech campaign does not by itself guarantee a good result, as can be seen from the Tories' performance in our two target wards. A party has to have something more going for it than just glossy leaflets - and at this moment in time Labour has.

We are astute enough to understand that, in electoral terms, community empowerment is a minority enthusiasm. In the past we have managed to bolster our "natural" support with the votes of some hundreds of voters who are just generally "fed up" - a feeling which this time was basically missing.

I hope you are wrong about the ICG contesting seats in 2018 to test the water. Speaking personally I would need more motivation than that to repeat the enormous sacrifice that I and my family have made during every contest since 1994. Indeed the only sound reason I can think of right now for getting involved under the circumstances you describe would be to "reserve" second place rather than allowing the Tories to gain ground at our expense, which would inevitably be the outcome of us not taking part. That is a big consideration but not one, in my view, which would itself be a crucial determining factor when taking such a decision.

The big issue is whether there is space for us to operate outside of the electoral arena. Post-2010 I had hoped that we could have changed tack but felt we needed some degree of buy-in from the newly elected councillors and that as you know was not forthcoming. This time that buy-in is even less likely as Labour has a vested interest in us standing again to keep the opposition split, but I think the view is that we'll just go ahead with it anyway. Even at this low ebb we still command some 1600 votes over our two target wards and these are votes which, in unhappier times, Labour would surely be interested in?

Having first thought Labour would edge it in 2015 I am now inclining towards your view that the Tories may end up as the party with the most seats. If that happens (assuming they don't manage an overall majority) I think there will be some serious blood-letting amongst the Lib Dems. It is one thing for unhappy activists not to rock the boat at this late stage, knowing that to withdraw from the coalition now would be seen as cynical and cowardly, but once the election is done there will need to be a new agreement and that will be the cue for those who saw this coalition as a mistake (or worse) to bare their teeth. I don't think the party will survive another five years playing a supporting role in an aggressive Conservative-led government.

There are lots of permutations and considerations, both for the short term and for the longer term, but one thing you can be sure of is that the ICG will continue to play a pivotal role in local events.

Anonymous said...

Not what I've heard. A little dicky bird tells me that most of your comrades are sick and tired of your constant belly-aching about how hard you work (as if your the only one!) and are about to show you the door!