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Tensions between Labour's leadership and its supporters may end up costing the party dear - it's very difficult to ...
Tensions between Labour's leadership and its supporters may end up costing the party dear - it's very difficult to win elections without activists on the strees, say Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, of the LGC elections centre.

Labour's celebration of its centenary brought into sharp relief tensions between the leadership and the party's activists.

The over-representation of Scotland and Wales at Westminster will have to be addressed as devolution takes hold. In short, Blair and his successors have to mould a party capable of winning over English voters. That means, in effect, appealing more to the centre ground. That is where the voters lie; but it is not where many of the party's activists want to be.

Our technological age has not yet removed the need for old-style electoral campaigning. True, people whose physical location is of no relevance can do telephone canvassing. Computers help identify 'key' voters and bespoke leaflets make a targeted appeal. But there is no substitute for the locally fought party campaign. The evidence is that electoral turnout is affected by the visibility of the electoral campaign.

Without the posters in the windows, the placards in the gardens, electors have little clue that an election is taking place at all. Without people willing to spend their Saturday afternoons leafleting busy shoppers, local parties would remain invisible.

Such activities are voluntary but there is a price to be paid by the leadership. It may believe in forging a new party identity but the interests of activists have to be accommodated.

Disputes over the direction and speed of change are inevitable. A wise leader is one who knows that compromises keep the party machine in working order.

There are some obvious signs of trouble. Labour's procedure for choosing a candidate for London mayor has been farcical and may well cost the party dear. The methods used in Wales were no better and look where that led. The leadership may see these as merely battles to be won or lost in the long war of New versus Old Labour. But at what cost to the party's organisation?

Away from the headlines Labour is suffering another crisis. It is widely known that turnout in elections has been declining. In by-elections, for example, it is three percentage points lower in this parliament than last. And in Labour's urban heartlands the fall is even higher and only slightly more than one in four bothers to vote.

Falling turnout need not be bad news for a party if the opponents' supporters fail to vote. Unfortunately for Labour, the reverse is the case.

Retained vote is a party's by-election vote expressed as a percentage of its vote at the previous May election. Should a party poll exactly the same number of votes at each election then its retained vote would equal 100%. If its by-election vote is half that it received in May its retained vote is 50%.

Labour's overall retained vote this parliament is just 68%. Since neither the local elections in May 1998 and 1999 were particularly good for the party that means a further deterioration from an already weakened base. Even the Conservatives during the Major years could sustain a retained vote of 71%.

A more detailed analysis reveals further cause for Labour concern. In London and other urban authorities the retained vote remains in the low 80s. Healthy enough, given that by-election turnout is invariably lower. But Labour's opponents are doing better amid the growing apathy.

The Conservatives, in what remains largely hostile territory, have a retained vote of 91%. The Liberal Democrats, successfully re-branding as the home for urban protest voters, have a retained vote of 116%. Its victories in Bristol City Council and Kirklees MC are no accident and signal a continuing trend.

Any party that hopes to win over English voters must do well in the shires. Here too, however, LabourÕs appeal has begun to fade. Its retained vote stands at just 63%. Even the Liberal Democrats, who have taken a battering of late in these areas, can still persuade 83% of its May support to turn out at by-elections.

This time it is the Conservatives whose by-election appeal is undiminished. Labour's 1997 landslide was partly a product of its ability to shed its image of high taxation with the voters of middle England. The problem is that the party appears incapable of mounting local campaigns to reinforce that initial commitment.

The lessons of the last Parliament should not be lost on Labour. The Lib Dems' parliamentary success came on the back of years of fighting local bread-and-butter issues. The Conservative decline was hastened by a failure to attend to the grass-roots and ageing activists. Labour's own massive boost in membership gave the flavour of a political, if not moral, crusade.

In 1981 a new party arrived on the political landscape. It enjoyed a spectacular rise, for a while overshadowing others in the opinion polls. But then the bubble burst and, after defeat in Bootle by the Raving Loonies, it disappeared. The SDP had leaders of vision and an ambitious plan to capture the coveted centre ground of British politics.

But the infantry fights wars and the SDP had precious few activists. Surely, Labour's history should make it incapable of repeating such an elementary mistake.

February 2000 results.

03 February

Camden LBCAdelaideCon held37.5 over Lab19.0

Sefton MBCAinsdaleLib Dem held5.8 over Con30.4

10 February

Braintree DCBraintree CentralLab held23.3 over Con16.0

Braintree DCBraintree EastLab held20.9 over Con17.0

Bristol City CouncilLockleazeLib Dem gain from Lab16.3 over Lab30.1

Cambridge City CouncilArburyLib Dem gain from Lab13.9 over Lab31.7

Gloucestershire CCNorth CotswoldCon held21.6 over Lib Dem37.9

Haringey LBCMuswell HillLib Dem held40.1 over Lab28.0

17 February

Boston DCKirtonCon held4.4 over Lib Dem19.2

Kennet DCUrchfontCon gain from Ind44.6 over Lib Dem55.6

Hertfordshire CCHitchin North EastLab held10.6 over Con24.9

24 February

Bromley LBCFarnboroughCon held9.4 over Lib Dem39.5

Gloucestershire CCLeckhampton With Up HatherleyCon gain from LD54.5 over Lib Dem26.2

Great Yarmouth BCLothinglandCon held20.9 over Lab22.7

Harrogate BCPateley BridgeLib Dem held18.6 over Con44.0

Kirklees MCPaddockLib Dem gain from Lab7.0 over Lab25.1

Melton BCSysonbyCon gain from Lab8.6 over Lab28.7

Newham LBCPlashetLab held15.6 over Con21.1

29 February

East Hertfordshire DCBraughingCon held11.8 over Lib Dem33.4

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