The West Yorkshire town of Halifax rose to prominence during the 2017 election campaign as a likely bellwether for the political fate of the nation. When Theresa May opted to launch her manifesto in the town it became clear that the Conservatives had their eye on overturning Labour’s slender majority. With Labour ultimately romping home with a comprehensive majority of over 5,000 votes, what lessons can be learned from Halifax about how to defeat the Tories?
1. Ignore the commentariat.
Media commentators leapt on Theresa May’s manifesto launch in Halifax as yet more evidence of what they saw as the Tories’ ‘aggressive’ election strategy, and right up to polling day we were being told that the Tories were likely to win not just in Halifax but across West Yorkshire. The Guardian had Halifax down as a place where “Labour has struggled to connect under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.” The New Statesman went further, with Helen Lewis publishing an article only days before the election suggesting that Holly Lynch, the town’s Labour candidate, “faces the strong possibility of becoming its ex-MP.”
In the end the commentators were left scrambling for excuses to explain their errors of judgement. Lynch won the seat comfortably with a majority of 5,376. Across West Yorkshire Labour won 17 of 22 seats, gaining Colne Valley and Keighley from the Conservatives, and upending the Lib Dems in Leeds North West. Labour even came agonisingly close in seats like the neighbouring constituency to Halifax, Calder Valley, where a powerful ground campaign and a visit from Jeremy Corbyn saw a Tory majority of thousands fall to mere hundreds.
2. This is the Corbyn surge, but in places it began under Miliband.
Having been held by Labour for most of the second half of the 20th century, Halifax fell to the Tories briefly in 1983, before reverting back to Labour again in 1987. Labour increased its share of the vote in Halifax at every subsequent election, and then in Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide Alice Mahon took over 54% of the vote. After 1997 Halifax followed the trend of many seats which had strongly backed Labour in that election as the party shed both votes and vote share, winning 49% in 2001, 41% in 2005 and then dipping as low as 37% in 2010.
That the seat was in jeopardy for Labour this time around was a result of the Blair and Brown years. Since 1997, the party’s vote share here had fallen and Lynch’s victory by only a few hundred votes in 2015 – while appearing poor on paper – should in fact be seen as a significant win, given it defied the trend of Labour’s wider falling vote share over the previous 18 years. Lynch added 1300 votes and raised Labour’s share of the vote to 40%. She may have been buoyed by the Corbyn wave in 2017, but it was Ed Miliband and Lynch’s own hard work in 2015 that had begun the Labour turn-around in Halifax.
3. It’s possible to win even when the local party and MP is openly hostile to the party leadership.
The narrow margin of victory in 2015 inevitably had the local party worried. When Corbyn became Labour’s leader these worries developed into full-on panic, with local Labour councillors openly criticising the leadership on Twitter and writing off the party’s chances at future elections.
Lynch resigned her post in the whip’s office in October 2016 citing the need to spend more time in her constituency, though media reports also reported that her resignation was a protest against Corbyn’s sacking of Rosie Winterton as chief whip. When the New Statesman reported from Halifax, Lynch apparently discussed with constituents on the doorstep the fact that “we’re going to need good MPs to rebuild the team” after the election, and suggested that her campaign tactic was to focus on the idea that “even if you don’t support the manager, you support the team.”
4. You can only win under these circumstances with an immensely strong ground campaign.
All sides of the party united for an election campaign that created the conditions for a large Labour majority. A campaign base was set up, and from early on constituency members received weekly meetings detailing times, dates and locations of all daily campaigning. The planning and organisation that went into such a routine was immensely impressive, and allowed members with limited free time to drop in and out of campaigning sessions whenever they could. This was supplemented by occasional visits from Labour’s ‘big beasts’, such as Tom Watson and Ed Miliband.
The radical left played its part, too. When May launched her manifesto in Halifax a counter-demo was called by Calderdale People’s Assembly. The lively turn-out may have been given short shrift by the national media, but it gained significant local media attention, with the Halifax Courier publishing video footage and reports on its website and in the paper. This gave traction to the idea that there was clear local opposition to that most shambolic of manifestos, and in doorstep conversations several local constituents would make reference to the protest when discussing their attitude to the Conservatives.
As the election neared, Momentum came into its own. An active local group works across the Halifax and Calder Valley constituencies, and prior to the election Momentum national organiser Adam Klug had been in town to train activists in the use of an app which allowed them to phonebank for Labour from the comfort of their own home. Momentum’s other big campaign tool, mynearestmarginal.com, brought activists from outside the constituency into Halifax, and in the final weeks Momentum personally contacted members in and around the constituency to encourage them to get out campaigning. This significantly boosted the number of bodies taking part in local campaigning.
5. Getting the vote out is massively important.
At 5.30am on polling day dozens of activists were pounding the streets dropping ‘remember to vote’ leaflets through people’s doors. Campaign headquarters were set up for the day in the homes of prominent members and councillors across the constituency. A diverse band of activists of all ages and experience dropped in and out of campaigning throughout the day, knocking on thousands of doors and paying repeat visits to homes across the day until confirmation of their voting had been obtained. It was a mammoth effort, fuelled by a sense of hospitality and solidarity – and not a small amount of tea and coffee – that was inspiring to be a part of.
Again, Momentum played a big part, helping to bring in activists from across the region to help out. At least 15 Labour members from Sheffield drove for two hours to spend the day door knocking in the constituency, and supplemented a large number of local members who also took part. Although purely anecdotal, my own conversations on polling day suggest this effort helped mobilise the Labour vote, and in some instances even persuaded people who hadn’t totally made up their mind to vote Labour. Such face-to-face interactions with voters, even up to the last minute, can play a big roll.
6. The Ukip vote didn’t sift completely to the Tories, as had been predicted.
Although at this stage full analysis of voting patterns is impossible, what is clear is that the Ukip vote from 2015 fell by 4,053 votes in Halifax, whilst the Tory vote rose by only 3,053. Without knowing the precise make-up of each party’s voters from both elections firm conclusions are difficult to draw, but it seems reasonable to at least suggest at this stage that around a quarter of the Ukip vote may have either gone over to Labour, or failed to vote at all.
7. Corbyn promised to increase turnout, and in doing so won big for Labour in Halifax.
Turnout was up 5.8% in Halifax. The Lib Dem vote fell by a few hundred votes, and the lack of Green and Respect candidates from the 2015 election meant there were another 1500 votes that were likely to head to Labour, but this still indicates another 6000 or so new Labour voters. Even assuming what seems to be the best-case scenario of a 25% shift from Ukip to Labour, this still means around 5000 new voters cast their vote for Labour compared to 2015, accounting for around a quarter of the total Labour vote in the constituency. Again, doorstep conversations suggest Labour’s ground game played a major role in raising turnout, but so too did a radical social-democratic manifesto and a campaign offering hope to those who have lost out under both the Tories and New Labour.
8. It wasn’t just nationally that the Tories ran an awful campaign.
Apart from launching their manifesto in Halifax, the Tories’ actual presence in the seat was astonishingly poor. They were barely seen out campaigning in many areas. Their candidate declined interviews with the national press, and for many constituents the only sign that a Conservative candidate was standing in the seat was the arrival of postal leaflets through the door. From their ground game, you never would have been able to believe the media reports that Halifax was a major target for the Tories.