Labour’s ground campaign is traditionally seen as our strong point, and might have been expected to be even more so, given the recent growth in membership. This strength was recognised by our Conservative opponents, who reportedly regarded Labour’s active membership and large-scale ground campaign as the “juggernaut” that blocked their advance in 2017.
Labour went in to the 2019 general election campaign with significant resources to mobilise:
Yet the evidence we have received tells us that, although some activists on the ground saw their local campaigns as a strong point, the national campaign experienced multiple failures.
Not all of these problems were unique to this election, and many have been issues for several elections. However, in a particularly challenging election where it was hoped that mobilisation of campaigners on the ground would offset other disadvantages, they made for major lost opportunities.
Key problems identified in the evidence received by this Commission included:
This commission has received evidence that there was a politicisation of staff in operational roles, meaning that decisions made during the General Election were not led by evidence. We were told that, at Southside (Labour’s London base), contentious and unconstructive meetings between senior managers and directors became the norm. Both current and former staff have told us that they witnessed a toxic culture take hold, resulting in low staff morale, with many staff being put under undue pressure and stress.
Lack of agreement around the Party’s aims left staff uncertain of their role and objectives within the wider plan. Lack of trust fostered a culture of secrecy that compounded this problem. Staff reported that, day to day, they didn’t know what to get on with or what campaign interventions they should be preparing for.
This commission notes that factional tensions and disunity amongst the staffing team is now the subject of a major independent inquiry, following the leaking of a report into the Party’s handling of anti-Semitism allegations. Whilst it is not for the Commission to comment while the inquiry is progressing, it is clear that disunity and factionalism also seriously undermined the Party’s efforts in the 2019 campaign.
As this Commission has received some evidence containing troubling allegations and detailing experiences of structural discrimination including anti-Semitism, anti-black racism and misogyny, we also support that the inquiry includes explicitly in its frame of reference investigation into “the extent of racist, sexist and other discriminatory culture within Labour Party workplaces”.
At the local level, many Constituency Labour Parties have been consumed by highly factional battles over motions and internal elections, resulting in low membership engagement.
Many of our 11,060 survey respondents indicated that they saw “factionalism” as a critical weakness in the Party’s organisation. Respondents from across the Party described the damage to working relationships, and discouragement felt by dedicated activists, as a result of the Party’s internal divisions.
There is also a view among some MPs that trigger ballots were a particularly stressful and distracting process for candidates to be put through, at the expense of work focused on the wider electorate in the constituency.
The way that Scottish MPs coordinated and supported each other was also referenced in our candidate interviews. A lack of co-ordination and divisions over the policy towards independence, meant the Party was not unified in working together to defend key seats.
The political landscape in which Labour is campaigning is constantly changing. As party loyalty decreases and new online political spaces emerge, Labour must innovate to stay ahead. Our Commission heard strong evidence that Labour, like many traditional progressive political parties, is failing to adapt to a changing world, with a strong centralising tendency and risk-averse culture. Little innovation in campaigning is attempted beyond the isolated and limited efforts of individual candidates, organisers and activists.
It is clear that running through Labour’s campaign were tensions between those newly involved in the Party, who found it bureaucratic and resistant to change, while more longstanding campaigners sometimes felt frustrated with others’ lack of experience.
Many who fed into our Review argued that Labour’s campaign practices have not moved with the times and have become outdated.
For example, in the context of declining voter loyalty and increased switching described in Chapter 2, new campaign methods may become even more important. Some argue that the Party’s approach to voter contact should be less “transactional” and more “relational” and incorporate more “persuasive” canvassing alongside traditional “Get Out The Vote” techniques. We make recommendations on this in Chapter 9.
There is also a need to adapt and tailor approaches to different contexts. The seats Labour has lost and needs to regain – and those that might newly become viable targets – are in very different constituencies with very different situations. Some will have a strong fabric of community organisations, others may be more fragmented or atomised. Some CLPs may have small but active memberships, but good relationships with the community, while others may have large memberships which are not mobilised. Generic, one-size-fits-all organising models and skillsets will not meet the complex challenge the Party faces.
A mismatch of resources with tactical and strategic requirements was, in part, the inevitable result of the targeting issues identified in Chapter 4. In addition, the geographical distribution of Labour’s most active members is concentrated in cities, and not where the electoral challenge actually was in this election. However, the Party failed to offset these factors and didn’t even get sufficient support to many of those seats it had identified as targets.
Labour’s internal analysis is reported to have indicated that during the short campaign, of 135 key marginals, only 25 saw contact rates above 20 per cent, while 56 saw contact rates of just ten per cent or lower. London marginals recorded 23,000 contacts - 28 per cent of eligible voters – while in Scottish marginals there was a contact rate of just 6.4 per cent, contact with 4,745 voters. 
When we asked our 11,060 respondents to say what was least effective about how the ground campaign was organised, a common response was the inefficient deployment of volunteers and resources.
Momentum’s written submission to Labour Together acknowledged the impact of their campaign was undermined by, among other things, “targeting based on expectations set by the 2017 result”. After “early high mobilisations in London and some other key urban areas” Momentum adjusted My Campaign Map “to encourage more activists to canvas in non-metropolitan areas”, and believe they “had some success in increasing mobilisations in marginal seats accessible from metropolitan areas”.
Defeated MPs we spoke to describe the deployment of resources as “haphazard”, with many telling us they felt they had run good local campaigns, but their effectiveness was limited by little regional or central support.
The Commission heard from many who told us how appreciative they were of support from Labour Party staff. Yet there were also many frustrations. Defeated MPs told us they felt let down by the support available to reinforce their local campaigns. A common example of this was the arrival of the direct mail (campaign leaflets that are sent to voters) after the postal vote deadlines.
We learned that hiring and finance was a problem for a number of Southside teams, and that regional staff had voiced concerns that organisers were not always hired quickly enough. Candidates and campaigners on the ground found organisers and other staff to be less experienced than in 2017, with many only very recently employed.
In Scotland, the high level of churn of staff and teams is epitomised by the loss of the Party’s General Secretary in the run up to the election. This had a destabilising impact on the Scottish Party and meant that new staff, who had never run a national campaign before, were immediately expected to run a General Election campaign. Scottish candidates we spoke to felt the support available to them was minimal.
Weaknesses in the Party’s messaging and communications were compounded by poor quality guidance on core campaign messages and headline policies to local candidates and campaigns. Candidates had little guidance on policy beyond Party press releases – in contrast to previous elections, in which the Party provided draft responses to campaign emails and phone conferences with Shadow Cabinet members. In some cases, local campaigns and candidates succeeded in making up for some of these weaknesses with their own local and personal strategies.
Candidates were left to design their own freepost addresses (one of the most valuable outputs to any campaign) and leaflets, with little or no common messaging, guidance on best practice, or effective and tested ideas. Inevitably, this resulted in uneven and inconsistent outcomes.
A number of candidates were critical of the information they were provided with in daily updates. While the daily Welsh emails were described as “helpful”, PLP briefings were described as “just too long and impossible to read” as well as too late (“needs to come first thing in the morning so we can actually use it”).
This lack of support to local candidates and campaigners on Labour’s messages and policies was rendered particularly problematic by the Party’s reliance on multiple policy announcements to try to influence news coverage, noted above. A rapid stream of often unfamiliar new policies left spokespeople and canvassers struggling to keep up, and risked reinforcing negative perceptions of Labour’s policy agenda as implausible and insufficiently thought-through.
Concerns were also raised over the lack of briefing for UK Labour Shadow Cabinet Members on Welsh and Scottish devolved policy and issues ahead of major media appearances in those locations or when they were up against prominent figures from Plaid Cymru or the SNP. As Wales is currently the only UK Labour-led administration, this was particularly a problem, as the opposition were able to attack Labour on its current record in government in Wales without Labour spokespeople being adequately prepared to respond.
Over recent elections, digital technologies have become increasingly critical to equipping and empowering local candidates and campaigners and delivering a well-coordinated, well-targeted, high-quality ground campaign. In this election, they were a significant source of weakness.
Vital systems and platforms were frequently unreliable, slow, hard to use, glitch-ridden, or tied up by complicated access restrictions. Examples included:
These problems made it extremely difficult for local candidates and campaigners – who are for the most part unpaid volunteers – to do essential parts of their job, such as producing and posting campaign materials, organising phone banks or canvassing sessions, or recording and reviewing voter contact data. In many cases local campaigns saw these tools as creating more problems than they solved, and resorted to their own workarounds, including buying their own burner phones and using local print and copy services.
The tools were clearly not built to be responsive to the needs of CLPs and members. The training guides, which often ran to more than 30 pages, were too long and complex to be of much use to many candidates and organisers. Problems of usability, combined with a lack of reliability, resulted in low levels of confidence and adoption of digital tools across the Party, meaning their potential to enhance Labour’s campaign simply wasn’t harnessed.
Again, factional rivalries also played a role here. We were told that access to information or tools such as Contact Creator, Insight and Mosaic was often influenced by local or national power struggles, disempowering many CLPs and members. Lack of training and guidance on GDPR rules meant this could be used as a justification for gatekeeping.
Although a general election had been likely for some time, systems had not been adequately upgraded, user-tested, debugged and prepared for the inevitable rapid scale-up of demand that would be placed upon them. The Party had not planned or invested enough money and resources to deliver the data-driven, technologically sophisticated campaign it was promising.
A lack of full-time development staff meant that a backlog of improvements, fixes and new features for tools like Dialogue, Organise and Events were still outstanding when the election began. It had only one permanent software developer, responsible for seven digital systems, meant for use by 500,000 members, a user-base larger than many technology companies that hire significantly more engineers. Moreover, a hiring embargo meant that agency developers could not be brought in to do critical work on the dialogue system until after the election began, meaning the team was only its full size two weeks in, despite its critical role in campaigning. Half-way through the election campaign, Labour’s Director of Technology resigned after just two years in office.
The lack of investment and resource suggests a collective failure of the Party to prioritise digital transformation, and an absence of strong technical leadership that could have provided oversight, analysis, coordination and advocacy. This was reinforced by factional rivalries, which in turn reinforced gatekeeping mentalities and resistance to new ideas and user consultation.
We learned that a “Digital Transformation team” (skilled former staff of the Government Digital Service) brought into the Party a few years previously had collectively resigned after six months, describing it as “the most miserable experience of their professional lives”. Staff who worked on the project said the effort lacked buy-in from senior management, with the team denied access to key tools like Contact Creator.
We were told that digital volunteers were given a bigger role in 2017, but by 2019 these volunteer communities felt completely isolated from the Labour Party machine. From Coders for Labour and the Momentum Tech Network to the much more active Campaign Lab, Labour members have huge untapped technical skills. As the code to Labour’s tools is closed and not documented, even to members, these communities are not able to contribute towards the Party’s digital infrastructure, such as fixing bugs, adding simple improvements to usability, or additional features. They also do not have any access to Party data, so volunteer data science capacity (which is particularly large within the Campaign Lab community) is not being used.
All this is evidence of the Party’s failure to evolve in an increasingly digital context. This lack of investment in digital capacity, and lack of focus on digital transformation, is completely out of step with most other modern organisations. Digital technology is not an optional add-on or enhancement, but the core of how effective businesses, organisations and movements now operate. It is revolutionising every part of our economy and society, and political campaigning is no exception to this.
Labour’s activist base is its key advantage on the ground – and levels of mobilisation in this election were among the highest ever achieved. It wasn’t hard for members to find things to do in the campaign. 65 per cent of our 11,060 survey respondents thought it was easy to get involved in campaigning. The main ways for them to find out were emails from CLPs (28 per cent of responses), CLP Facebook groups (14 per cent) and Momentum’s My Campaign Map (11 per cent).
Yet despite the large numbers of members and volunteers Labour could call on in the 2019 election, there are serious problems around both their distribution and representativeness. It was far easier to mobilise members to work in marginals around London and other major cities than in constituencies in Scotland, for example, which saw much lower voter contact rates.
Bussing campaigners to vulnerable constituencies has limitations as a response to this problem. Respondents to our survey highlighted “lack of representativeness amongst canvassers” as a key weakness in Labour’s ground campaign, highlighting the importance of building a movement that reflects the communities it is trying to engage.
Many of the constituencies lost to the Conservatives in this election had struggled to muster local campaigns. Membership had been hollowed out or disengaged from Party work over multiple election cycles, combining in some cases with loss of council seats. The defeated candidate for Dudley South (which was lost by Labour in 2005) compared the 300 Party members in the constituency with 3,000 in Lambeth, where she is a councillor.
These problems will become even more acute in the absence of a Labour MP. Labour faces a huge challenge in learning, or remembering, how to rebuild membership and campaign capacity in areas where it has been lost.
Despite good intentions, the Party did not succeed in translating the enthusiasm of an expanded membership base into higher levels of local engagement outside the campaign period itself. The Commission notes evidence of a lack of “year-round” levels of activity ahead of the election, especially in parts of the country with small numbers of members, which is critical, both to maintaining Labour’s visibility and legitimacy in communities and to building up voter ID data needed to direct efforts when the campaign begins. The resulting reliance on paid Organisers to conduct essential voter contact work impacted on their ability to free up time for other forms of member and community engagement.
This in turn was partly due to a general lack of support, guidance and training for members. Newly involved activists were inevitably unfamiliar with Party rules, procedures, techniques and structures, while CLP officers were given little support or advice on how best to induct, integrate and build relationships with new members. Defeated MPs felt that volunteers tended to be less experienced than in 2017. On the other hand, some new activists found the Party unreceptive to their desire to become involved, and felt that the limited ways of becoming involved – primarily, door-knocking or standing for a local position in the CLP – did not allow the Party to make full use of the time and skills of new members.
Labour’s experience with community organising illustrates its ongoing difficulties with strategic integration and innovation.
The Party has sought to integrate community organising methods for some time, as seen in the work of Movement For Change and the involvement of Arnie Graf in Labour’s campaigning before the 2015 election. Following the 2017 election, the Party took a different approach of hiring new Community Organisers to work alongside existing staff and members.
Labour’s 2019 Annual Report stated that “our investment in community organising is starting to show tangible results as our team of Community Organisers across the UK become fully integrated with the regional teams”. However, one of the biggest problems of the 2019 campaign was a failure of integration and coordination between community organising and other campaign work.
In their submission to the review, the Community Organising Unit provided accounts of some strong local campaigns and mobilisations it helped to seed or build relationships with, around issues such as housing in Putney, Hendon and Westminster; diversity and community in Broxtowe; recycling facilities in Carmarthenshire; or health and community services in Wolverhampton or Rushcliffe.
However, the establishment of a new community organising structure side-by-side with older, parallel and sometimes conflicting systems created its own problems of strategic coordination and integration.
The roles and responsibilities of the Community Organising Unit weren’t clearly understood across the Party. Often, they were confused with the Training Team or were expected to fulfil the role of election organiser. Often they were confused with the Training Team or were expected to fulfil the role of election organiser. Confusion over different kinds of organisers (trainee, community and regional), their functions and level of training meant that some candidates felt they did not have enough support in terms of core campaign functions (eg. running boards, promise data).
There was confusion around the extent to which their performance should be judged on voter contact rates, or the role of their engagement events in Party policy formation. Some Labour Party staff felt that the Community Organising Unit worked at odds with their efforts and consumed campaign resources at their expense, while others felt the Community Organising team was subject to a level of pressure and scrutiny not applied to other parts of the operation. Too often, the result was unproductive interpersonal or inter-organisational tensions, where there should have been cooperation and synergy.
As noted above, much of this is a symptomatic consequence of the historic unresolved tensions between community organising models and traditional electioneering. In this election, cultural and organisational fault lines were reinforced by political and “factional” divisions, but the basic clash of philosophies and priorities has proved an obstacle to the Party’s efforts to learn from community organising in the past, including the 2010 to 2015 period.
We believe both models have an essential role to play and that they can, and should be, complimentary and mutually reinforcing activities. Building and developing new relationships through community organising has massive potential to increase support for Labour and make traditional election methods, such as door-knocking, more effective. Yet the Party has still to find an answer to the question of how to join up these approaches strategically or organisationally.
Unions formally affiliated to the Labour Party are an underused asset. Collectively, they represent four million members and tens of thousands of active workplace reps. According to TULO, which coordinates joint political work across the twelve unions affiliated to the Party, there is evidence that “union members trust political messaging from their union more than they would trust messaging directly from a political party.”
Even in the USA, where union membership has shrunk even more dramatically as a share of the workforce than in the UK, their role in campaigns has been a key spur to Republicans' investment in improved targeting and mobilisation techniques – Karl Rove, a major influence on conservative “movement-building”, described his key motivation as “labor envy”.
In the UK, trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party devote considerable resources to raising their members’ awareness of the Labour Party and encouraging them to get involved in campaigning, as well as policy debates. According to TULO, they have “learned a lot from their counterparts in Australia and the USA, and have used sophisticated and varied methods to communicate with their members with a political message”.
However, there is recognition across the union movement that their ability to influence and mobilise their own members, as well as members’ families and wider communities, has suffered from some of the trends and dynamics set out in Chapter 2. The disappearance or downsizing of historically unionised industries, and the diminished role of associated institutions such as Labour Clubs, has reduced unions’ visibility in those parts of the country where Labour’s support has declined.
Many unions, including key Labour affiliates, have made efforts to address these challenges. Noteworthy initiatives include:
“Work with unions should be about more political education. I'm an education officer of a union - nobody in the leadership has ever asked me or my colleagues how we could politically educate our members and collaborate.”
“Labour needs to recruit and organise among the growing precariat, as in the early days of trade unions. This is a second industrial revolution and Labour needs to get on board.”
“With less and less people in unions, people no longer have a link with the Labour party. We need to show people that Labour is there to fight for them, not just a bunch of career politicians out for themselves, which is definitely how it can look.”
We received some evidence that effective political campaigning was held back by a lack of co-ordination. In the 2019 campaign, Datapraxis report that “the unions punched well below their weight, hamstrung by the failure of Labour headquarters to share its strategic analysis or data”.
The Commission received mixed reports in terms of councillor activity and contributions to Labour campaigning at election time. While some areas had strong campaigning activity led by councillors all year round, in other places there was a distinct lack of local campaigning structures.
Analysis done for the Local Government Association shows there is clear evidence that where we have a strong local council and effective campaigning – as seen, for example, in Plymouth Moorview – we can beat the swing against Labour nationally. There are also many examples of constituencies where loss of council control preceded, and could perhaps have been taken as a warning sign of, the parliamentary seat being lost.
In other areas there is evidence of a negative “incumbency effect”, where voter frustrations create a perverse advantage for Labour’s opponents in a general election. A long-term, lack of engaging, relevant year-round campaigning in some areas has fuelled mistrust in Labour, and reinforced the view that we are the “establishment” Party, in areas that have seen little change over many years as a result of Conservative austerity. This came up as a strong theme in post-election focus group work with former Labour voters who had switched their support in 2019.
Often there is a disconnect between local government and parliamentary offices, which can lead to frustration on both sides. Joint working is particularly important in terms of messaging. In this election there were times when Labour’s national messages were at odds with local messages, particularly on austerity. According to defeated MP and Commission member, Jo Platt (Leigh), Wigan council was issuing lots of positive stories about their successes, while Labour's national message was one of cuts to council services.
More effective joint working and joined up campaigning can really make a difference. For example, we heard how close working relationships and effective collaboration in Cheshire West and Chester helped to build support for Labour in the area and maintain what has historically been a more marginal seat since 2015.