One event, and one alone, dictates whether your party gets someone’s vote, and that is the moment in the polling booth when the decision is made to put an X against your candidate. Many things influence that voter: some may be national issues, and the prevailing mood, but in an election campaign where the challengers have not established a decisive lead – as in the one just gone – the clincher may be simply that your party is the one listening to them.
And that means that your party has to lay claim to that most basic part of leadership: that you are addressing the peoples’ greatest concerns. Those concerns may relate to the most local of issues. They may relate to law and order, bin collections, and – in some parts of the country – immigration. If you want their vote, your party must show that it is addressing them. Nowhere was this approach demonstrated, and vindicated, more than in Birmingham’s Edgbaston constituency.
Edgbaston had been solidly Tory until 1997, when in the Blair landslide the seat was captured by Gisela Stuart. This time round, it was a top Tory target, but Labour prevailed. They did so by responding to the concerns of the electorate, bringing in large numbers of volunteers, and by the popularity of an MP who had demonstrated that she was of independent mind. This campaign is now being hailed as a model for what Labour need to do next time round.
But it isn’t rocket science, and it isn’t just in Birmingham: in east London, Margaret Hodge pointed out back in 2006 the potential vulnerability of Labour to fringe parties such as the BNP, because the white working class felt that they were not being listened to. Hodge addressed the concerns of her electorate on the subject of immigration, and her vote rose at the election, with that of the BNP falling.
It’s so simple, it should not need saying: listen to the electorate, and demonstrate that you are addressing their concerns. That’s leadership.