I went to my local Labour Party ward meeting last Thursday night. I live in Gospel Oak, Camden, in the parliamentary constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. Our candidate is Keir Starmer who has taken the reins from long standing MP Frank Dobson.
The selection of Keir last year really got me and the rest of our local party members re-engaged with the politics of election campaigning early. The various candidates took their messages to the streets, knocking on doors and talking face to face. This was without doubt the catalyst that we needed to spark our passions. The turn out for the final selection was I am told the largest in Labour Party history. The benefit of the battle before is we now have a united local group still carrying that energy into the GE campaign. Perhaps all constituencies should have a run off prior to the national poll.
Keir Starmer is a great candidate but we take nothing for granted. Holborn and St Pancras is seen as a safe Labour seat but we will be under scrutiny from the national media as Natalie Bennett, leader of the Greens is running here too. TV, radio, newspapers and bloggers will be out in force.
It was talk of the media in general that reminded us at our meeting last week of the 'two kitchens' story/non-story that got picked up by the Tories and the tabloid press to used as a stick to beat Ed Miliband with. We live in a culture that is fast news, easy sound bites, X Factor judgement and #bantz. Could a fabulous spin doctor have retorted that the second kitchen had previously been a third bedroom? Or that was where the bacon sarnies were made? Or is it in fact better to rise above the schoolboy idiocy and respond with short, measured and positive messaging?
The Sun last week featured David Cameron at number 10 with a day in the life video. Nicely made, it showed him up early making an omelette in his kitchen (he has a second one in the Cotswolds). In the video he tells us that he follows himself on facebook in order to see what people are "getting". Read the youtube comments of the clip and you can see he's getting a lot of rich language aimed at him.
Labour doesn't do social media very well. We have no money to pay for big online ads and it takes more than time and effort to ensure people don't make gaffs. So the rule seems to be, don't do it at all. There's no escaping it though. It offers the truth of history where we can see Neil Kinnock fall into the surf, Tony Blair get upset when asked if he prays with George Bush, Nick Clegg being so, so, sorry and the all time classic Thatcher in a tank. We are told and we know that we do not speak to young people yet we are unable to do what Russell Brand does and get out a video blog that connects.
At our meeting we discussed this and more: the economy and austerity, social housing and house building, polls and non-voters, education and child care, the elderly, justice and yes the NHS. As I left I heard an elderly neighbour, a Labour member for more years than I have been alive say, "That was the best local meeting I have been to for years." I didn't doubt it because in an hour and a half we'd gone through all of the above by keeping our points short and sweet. There's a phrase that salesmen use when training people to pitch - KISS; keep it simple, stupid! It is much nicer to be greeted with a kiss than a lecture.
Back at home for the guilty pleasure of Question Time, I drifted in and out of paying attention while the politicians and wise offered arguments to an agenda. Will Self quipped about a pre-show chat with Labour's Chuka Umunna, a man I have a lot of respect for, and how Chukka had said to him, "You can say what you like." And it resonated because the mistrust we feel for politicians seems to stem not just from the misdemeanours some commit but also the fact that we know they are towing to a party line only. I am not offended by a personal point of view to go with a commitment to a political one. I like it very much in fact. Will Self hit this point resoundingly on its head. It isn't politics people have disengaged with, it's the politicians.
We've got two major parties polling around 30% each with 30% shared by the second tier parties and 10% going to others. That's very much an overall vote for 'none of the above'. Our incumbent PM, Mr Cameron only slightly more popular than his opposite number Mr Miliband who is roundly made fun of on a personal level by the Tory tabloid press every day. Nick Clegg not trusted to give you a lift home in case he turns the Sat Nav off and goes in the other direction, Nigel Farage like Captain Peacock from Are You Being Served's political wing and Natalie Bennett digging herself a hole in a pile of recycled compost. When May the 7th arrives, it will be a simpler message the populous are faced with, a shortlist of names and a box to cross.
To create a Labour Spring this April we need to start talking tough, straight and short. If we can't do facebook and twitter as a party then let's talk to people who can and get the voices of our numbers heard. Let's make every door knock count with some simple words on the door step. Words that count and ears that listen.
Here's how Keir Starmer finished off at our meeting. "When Frank Dobson became candidate here he promised that local railway workers would be able to continue to afford to live in the borough. I now have to promise that a brain surgeon at the Royal Free Hospital will."