Labour may be making a political virtue out of economic necessity, but Ed Miliband began his election campaign vowing to cut through the anti-politics mood with an open, doorstep-based campaign designed to contrast with a traditional poster campaign orchestrated from Westminster by the Tories.
Visibly relieved that 2015 is finally here after waiting so long for the electioneering to start, Miliband is promising town hall question times, sometimes twice weekly, during the campaign. Meanwhile, his officials are making an effort to ensure the audience is not the usual range of Labour activists or sympathisers from the voluntary sector, but a tough audience of swing voters or people drawn to Ukip.
As many as 20,000 pieces of direct mail have been sent out for each event inviting locals to the meetings and the aim is to ensure an audience of up to 200 asks difficult questions. Miliband wants to be challenged from the left at these events and by traditional working-class voters. If the challenge from the floor is as much about immigration as Trident, his officials will be happy.
These sessions are envisaged as a version of Tony Blair’s “masochism strategy” in the 2005 election, when the then prime minister exposed himself to angry challenges on the most difficult issues, especially the invasion of Iraq.
The events, initially at lunchtime, will be televised, and if the format works will be switched to the evenings, even though this will make it harder for broadcasters to prepare their evening packages. Officials admit there is a risk in unscripted events but say the conduct of politics has to be rethought if voters are to be re-engaged. The jeering of the BBC’s Norman Smith at Miliband’s campaign launch in Salford for having the temerity to suggest there has not been an NHS winter crisis shows the danger. But his officials believe the format will show Miliband has the mettle to tackle dissent and is not cocooned in a Hampstead seminar room .
Labour hopes to marry this relatively open campaign with an active doorstep ground war. In its biggest single election spending decision, Labour has switched its resources from paid-for advertising and election mail shots to pouring resources into organisers. The party claims to have hired 100 organisers and 200 field staff, a record.
The aim is to make sure that by polling day the Tories, at least on the doorstep, feel outnumbered and outfought. Labour says it is quite feasible that it can hold its 4m direct doorstep conversations in the next four months, which would be double the number in 2010 and should be sufficient to boost the Labour vote in target seats by as much as 5%. It represents 68 conversations a minute in an eight-hour day.
Labour insists doorstep conversations are not a bogus attempt at authenticity, and that there is academic evidence to support the argument that “voluntary, largely face-to-face activity has greater campaign potential than money alone”.
Justin Fisher, in the April 2013 edition of Parliamentary Affairs, measured activism by percentage of electorate canvassed, percentage of constituency covered by number-takers and number of polling-day workers, and found campaign activism does win seats.
Indeed if the party had maximised its activism in every seat in 2010, Labour wins an estimated 350 seats. Or can you can simply look at some very active parties such as Oxford East - a Labour stronghold because the party is a hive of activism.Not surprisingly, in view of this research, Labour is still hoping to redraft the veteran American organiser Arnie Graff back to the UK to help ensure the 4m conversations happen , as well as use them as a basis to build broader volunteer support for Labour.Of course the value of this activism is worthless if the party is being carpet bombed daily in an “air war” on television and elsewhere in the media, or has a message that does not galvanise potential Labour supporters.
The bulk of Miliband’s launch was crafted to fire up those voters and party activists by framing the election as a choice between Labour optimism and Tory pessimism. But the effectiveness of his attack on the threat facing the NHS will probably be determined as much by what happens in A&E departments.
In terms of delivery Miliband is no Bobby Kennedy but he had the makings of a decent stump speech – one heavily influenced by David Axelrod, his American adviser. The aim will be to focus on the NHS this month, young people next month and in March on living standards. The spine of the campaign is built round these policy areas.
Miliband is privately surprised by the traditional nature of the Tory campaign, which is straight from the Saatchi & Saatchi playbook. The absence of any effort by David Cameron to secure a fresh mandate with a clear second-term programme also leaves him perplexed.
Yet by polling day all Labour’s talk of a different kind of campaign may prove to be a construct, just a little narrative to sweet talk the media and party activists alike. A launch in the Lowry complex on a working Monday morning, mainly attended by loyal activists, hardly represents a revolution.
It was mainly designed to look good on TV. There were a few hints of a new policy ahead on tuition fees, probably in February, and a strong commitment to build a different kind of economy. No shame in that. But for all the talk of Twitter, Facebook and doorsteps, Labour knows this campaign will probably be won or lost on the small screen and especially by the TV debates.
At the moment inter-party talks on whether those TV debates will go ahead appear to be stalled. The Tories are still testing the water to see how badly they would be damaged if they pulled out altogether or reduced the number of debates from three to one. Until that is resolved, the character of the campaign ahead will remain an enigma.
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