According to a senior party official familiar with the leadership team’s electoral strategy, while Labour MPs are looking over their shoulders in seats once considered unassailable, Corbyn and his close aides believe a grass-roots insurgency can succeed against the well-oiled Conservative election machine.
They believe the success of the Brexiteers, Donald Trump, Macron — and to a lesser degree French leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon — shows the nature of political campaigning has fundamentally changed.
“Campaigning like this is something we are actually good at and we know what we are doing,” said one Labour official. “We have lots of experienced people and the gap between us and the Tories in this area is really quite large.”
While many in the party feel the best Labour can achieve is damage limitation, the campaign’s leaders are determined they can turn the tide and win seats with an anti-elites campaign straight out of the populist playbook.
“Labour will be fighting for every seat and every vote in this general election,” the party’s national election chair, Andrew Gwynne MP, told POLITICO. “This is the chance for a fresh start with a Labour government. The choice couldn’t be clearer: between a Labour Party who will stand up for the many, and a Conservative Party which only looks after the privileged few.”
Corbyn, front and center
The gloom among MPs is not permeating the top team, who will complete their move to campaign HQ at Labour’s Southside head office, half a mile from the Palace of Westminster, by the end of this week.
The campaign chairs Gwynne and fellow MP Ian Lavery will be joined by key staff from the leader’s office, who are set to call the shots over the next six weeks.
Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s official spokesman and former Guardian columnist, is leading on communications and strategy. Alongside him at the head of the operation is Karie Murphy, executive director of Corbyn’s office, who will be the campaign’s day-to-day manager. MP John Trickett will represent the leader inside HQ on the frequent occasions Corbyn himself is out on the stump.
There is “no Lynton Crosby figure,” the official familiar with the party’s strategy said, referring to the veteran political strategist who has been hired by the Tories. The Labour campaign team, which was until recently under the experienced hand of party staffer Simon Fletcher, was centralized earlier this year and is now under the control of the Milne/Murphy axis.
Policy chief Andrew Fisher is drafting the manifesto, with input from members of the shadow cabinet. It will go before a committee of party MPs and officials — known as the “Clause V committee” by the leader’s office in reference to the party’s constitution which sets out how policy is made — in the coming days to be ratified before publication, the official said.
The leader may not poll well, but his team are determined to put him front and center.
“He has already done 14 events to Theresa May’s four,” said an official. Many key meetings in HQ will be conducted with Corbyn chipping in by conference call.
Corbyn has been in a state of almost perpetual campaigning — twice for the leadership, and in the EU referendum — since the 2015 election, and is happiest on the stump, the official said. His team hopes that the same grass-roots enthusiasm, demonstrated in barnstormer rallies reminiscent of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in two successful leadership campaigns, will catch on nationwide.
Asked whether the strategy amounted to “damage limitation,” given the state of the polls, the official pointed to locations Corbyn has visited during the campaign so far — such as Crewe, Cardiff, Swindon and Bristol — where there are Tory seats the party thinks they can win, and Scotland, where the SNP dominates.
They believe they can deliver an upset.
“Campaigning has changed, you can’t rule out the outsider at the outset,” the official said, pointing to Macron and Mélenchon’s first and fourth positions in the first round of France’s presidential contest.
Caught between the two-thirds of its voters that backed Remain in the EU referendum, and the third that backed Leave, Labour is hoping to move the debate away from Brexit.
Campaign HQ will be tolerant of local campaigns striking varying tones on the issue: supportive of a soft Brexit in Remain areas, clear that “Brexit means Brexit” in Leave areas. In Stoke Central, a heavily Leave area, Labour campaign material adopted an unabashedly patriotic tone during the recent by-election, emphasizing border control and immigration, and the party clung on.
The head of that campaign, Birmingham MP Jack Dromey, has called on the party to learn the lessons of Stoke. They have been noted, the official close to Corbyn said.
However the party also has a national message that the election is “not just about Brexit, it’s the people versus the powerful,” the official said.
There is a grid of campaign announcements planned. So far the party has put forward a number of measures that fit within the theme of “the people” — four extra bank holidays, a £10-an-hour minimum wage, a pay rise for NHS staff. Future campaign briefings will turn the spotlight on “the powerful” — what the official described as “the nexus of tax cheats, press barons and Tories.”
Time to say goodbye?
The polls haven’t moved in Labour’s favor since May called the snap election last week. If anything, they’ve gotten worse.
MPs have taken note of their former pollster GQRR’s prediction that seats with majorities up to 10,000 could be at risk, threatening more than 100 seats. “MPs in seats that just should not be on the radar are now sweating,” said one party source.
Another, an MP with a majority over 14,000, said: “It would be a dark day in hell if Labour lost my seat. But you can’t take anything for granted now.”
A range of factors — the popularity of May and her message of “strong and stable” leadership through the Brexit process, concern about Corbyn’s leadership qualities, the return of UKIP voters to the Tories, and the modest revival of the Liberal Democrats — are conspiring against Labour.
That Corbyn is not seen as an electoral asset is now openly accepted by many MPs. On Monday, Matthew Pennycook, a highly rated Labour frontbencher, was contacted on Twitter by a constituent who said he wanted to vote for him but couldn’t support Corbyn. “It will only be my name on the ballot paper,” was Pennycook’s public reply.
Labour’s political enemies can hardly disguise their glee. “They are very depressed,” said one former Tory cabinet minister. “Five or six of them have come up to me already to say their goodbyes. They know they are really staring down the barrel.”
Author: Charlie Cooper and Tom McTague