I’ve always voted Labour (well there was that one time in London in 2000, but that worked out OK). I’ve always known pretty quickly which side represented my point of view on an issue and been an active and vocal supporter. What I don’t know about the ins and outs of campaigning could be written on a postage stamp. Or so I thought, until I realised that what I really didn’t know about campaigning was what it was like to be ambivalent, to be campaigned at. What I discovered was that I didn’t like it, not one bit.
As I’ve documented in previous articles on this site I was completely ambivalent about the AV referendum. I eventually came down on the side of No, but with so little conviction that I didn’t even try to change the mind of my husband who voted the other way. I had no strong political conviction on one of the biggest issues of the day. I felt lost and confused.
Ambivalence was one of the most eye-opening political experiences of my life. What I saw wasn’t good.
In this election I was like the vast majority of voters at most elections. I didn’t have a team, I was open to persuasion and by the end of the campaign I was thoroughly sick of the whole thing.
Not having a team meant that I had the opportunity to evaluate dispassionately the tactics and behaviours of both sides and their supporters. The Yes campaign believed they had right on their side. They were high-minded and high-horsed. They talked of change and its transformational properties. The No campaign believed they had the Right on their side. They used low cunning and base humour. They talked of waste and the cost of change.
But mostly what each campaign talked about was each other. Endless attacks on Twitter and in the press about the other side, their tactics and their supporters. When you don’t have a side, this means nothing to you. You get that the two sides don’t like each other, but if you don’t like either of them, you don’t get why you should care. These spats may have energised and outraged supporters, but it left the rest of us out in the cold.
A lot of people I like and respect seemed to believe very strongly that I should agree with them, but they didn’t agree with each other. Both groups seemed to feel that my lacking a view was somehow a deficiency on my part. The yes campaign in particular saw my inability to become a fellow traveller as a quite abhorrent act. I was actually told by a yes campaigner to whom I confessed early on my ambivalence that voting against was immoral. I didn’t find this a very persuasive argument.
Both campaigns were self-congratulatory and self-reinforcing (if my Twitter feed was anything to go by there would have been a Yes to AV landslide, and I think some convinced themselves there would be because everyone they talked to was voting that way) and while No to AV won a convincing victory, it wasn’t a campaign you could ever replicate to vote for something, and there aren’t any winning tactics to copy to elect a party.
Throughout the campaign I seemed to be asking questions that neither campaign would answer. No one seemed to want to bother to answer anything off the FAQs track. My objections to either side were met not with a considered reaction to my issues but by a retreat as fast as possible to the talking points.
So what does this mean for Labour and our future campaigning? Because at the end of the day, I’m not a floating voter. I’m a Labour tribalist who has been granted the chance to see where we go wrong and try to fix it.
Well firstly, attacking the Tories just for being Tories is fine for branch meetings but people without a party card won’t jump to the same conclusions we do when they hear the word Tory. We have to prove why the Tories are wrong in their policies and damaging to the country and people’s lives. We can’t assume people will hate them “because they are Tories”.
Secondly, a fixation on horse-trading keeps us geeks alive and active, but again those who aren’t tribal don’t care. If you’re not in a campaign you don’t care about a campaign. You might care about the messages and how they resonate with your lives, but you don’t care if the head of the campaign made a gaffe or compared their opposite number to a plank of wood. Our concentration on process over policy is far too imbalanced. That’s fine on this website, which is for Labour to talk to Labour (and we do need places to have the necessary discussions about strategy) but in the generalist press, on television and particularly when engaging personally with voters, we need to talk issues not inside baseball.
Finally, we need to be a lot cleverer when engaging with voters on a one-to-one basis. We need to listen to the questions they are asking us and respond properly and accordingly. We need to stop treating canvassing like it’s a race. It should be a qualitative not a quantitative exercise in engagement. It should be a two-way exchange of information and views which are fed back through the party, just as we hope convinced voters will pass on our convincing messages to their friends and family.
I’ve had a chance to experience life as a floating voter. What I saw shocked me. It also seemed a bit too familiar.
This piece first appeared on Labour List.