Labour’s grassroots activists are hitting the campaign trail with enthusiasm but there’s still an uphill struggle ahead, writes NATHAN AKEHURST
THE second week of the snap election has brought with it a cold snap. Labour’s army of canvassers is trudging between doors in high wind, hail and falling temperatures.
They are in for a long ride — the heady confusion of last week’s election prologue is over and we are settling in for a bitter campaign that will seem far longer than its actual duration.
Selections are ongoing, and at the time of writing, many of those on the doors do not yet even know who their local candidate is.
But on the ground, campaigners are ready for anything. In Reading last weekend, I sat with a group of local young people who felt firmly confident that with relentless effort and a strong message on housing and local issues, the considerable Tory majorities could be toppled. Their local party is struggling to cope with the number of people volunteering.
Similar reports are coming in from across the country. The party has begun a series of training events to turn campaigners into effective messengers, an echo of the “Labour organising academies” promised in the Corbyn leadership campaign last summer which aimed to provide cutting-edge skills to Labour’s mass membership.
In spite of some sniping — such as Labour HQ staff threatening a strike against Corbyn — unity and discipline has remained reasonably solid.
While energy is there in spades, the doorstep can be a demoralising place. Responses have been mixed, especially among canvassers I speak to in London marginal seats. We are, as one Labour official said last week, still very much the underdogs. But there is ample room for the wind to shift.
The polling gap has narrowed by several points since the campaign begun. And even in our most disappointing poll, education moved up to number three on voters’ priority lists behind the NHS and Brexit. On two out of three of these key election issues, we have a runaway advantage.
On Brexit, Keir Starmer’s speech clarified Labour’s stance — effectively a soft-Brexit position. Such a middle ground position seems sensible: Labour represents the most ardently Remain and the most ardently Leave places in Britain.
It is the only force in British politics that has a chance of healing those divisions, aiming to preserve popular elements of our relationship with the EU while delivering firmly on the referendum result.
And it is the only force that can stop Theresa May’s postBrexit vision of a tax-haven, City-centric Britain resembling Singapore surrounded by fields.
The Liberal Democrats’ hold over some Remainers may also collapse as people become aware they have quietly dropped their second referendum commitment in order to position for a potential coalition.
The Lib Dem press machine, much-praised in recent months for its supposed nous, has lurched from tragedy to comedy, ending in Thursday’s main Lib Dem story being Tim Farron telling a voter to sniff his spaniel.
This is not completely cheering — 2010 Lib Dem voters broke rightward in 2015, and a postBrexit return of those voters could work to undermine Tory candidates in key marginal seats.
Meanwhile the Greens are putting their money where their mouth is on a progressive alliance and are pulling out in a handful of Labour or Lib Dem marginals.
As alliances shift, so too does policy. The metadata on the government’s Brexit white paper indicates that it was completed at 4.19am.
I’m told the manifesto writing process on all sides is similarly fuelled on Irn Bru and all-nighters, and there have been delays everywhere on agreeing final positions.
The Tories will produce, if things go according to plan, a slim and insubstantial document next week, and Labour a bulkier one by May 15. Lobbyists and influencers who would usually be in overdrive have simply given up on trying to affect the manifestos, due to the process moving at such a breakneck pace.
Labour’s policy blitz has also moved swiftly. We have had a promise of four new bank holidays, 200,000 new homes a year, the Brexit speech and a commitment to decent pay for nurses.
It’s a far cry from the leaden, bare-stripped message discipline of Theresa May — so potent that when Boris Johnson referred to Jeremy Corbyn as a “mugwump” and a journalist asked if May knew what the word meant, she simply replied: “What I know is that this country needs strong and stable leadership.”
Many believe that this Lynton Crosby formula — a single relentlessly hammered line, tight control of limited public appearances and the occasional savage attack — will be enough to see May’s campaign through.
Former Corbyn spokesman Matt Zarb-Cousin disagrees. “It is clear that Tory strategists recognise that Theresa May is a weak candidate, that’s why they’re hiding her away and want to avoid a debate with Jeremy at all costs.
“It will be interesting to see”, he adds, “how the Tories react if, as I suspect, the polls improve for Labour. It seems they have already decided that Theresa May is a potential liability for them in this campaign, which is why every public appearance has to be meticulously stage managed.”
All political campaigns rely on a level of stage management, and avoiding the potential for unhelpful distractions is a useful skill for any political operator to have.
Yet it does sometimes feel as if the North Korean government communications team have been called in to run May’s campaign. Most of her visits are with carefully pre-selected activists.
She arrived at one factory after all the workers had left. She arrived at another where workers cowered away from journalists, having been prebriefed into mute terror. Most of the time, she is barely visible at all.
Meanwhile Corbyn’s grassroots appeal has been turned by commentators from a virtue into a vice. His supporters are among the most maligned and smeared groups in British politics — as if it were cultish to want affordable homes and a decent wage.
But on the campaign trail, it is no bad thing that his team have to factor in half-hour delays for selfie queues every time they step off a bus.
In the communities that he visits, he is almost instantly surrounded whatever time of day it is. Most politicians dream of experiencing a Corbyn-style reception on their visit. But most do not possess the authenticity, ease around everyday people — and most importantly, the bold rule-breaking policy agenda, that he possesses.
If the election was decided by people that either candidate had met, Labour would have it in the bag. Of course, real life is not that simple. With the clock ticking, we will soon know whether Corbyn’s grassroots campaign is a stronger springboard than May’s astro-turfing.