Sarah Jones, re-elected last month as the Labour MP for Croydon Central, says that her campaign in the General Election offers key lessons for her party as it picks up the pieces after a shattering defeat.
Writing a lengthy article for The Independent, Jones makes several claims about how she managed to hold the seat when dozens of Labour MPs were losing theirs around the country.
The article might have appeared to be a leadership or deputy leadership pitch, were the deadline for entries to replace Jeremy Corbyn not already closed. Instead, it has all the appearances of Jones positioning herself for a key role in the leadership campaign of Sir Keir Starmer, for whom she has declared her support.
At the very least, Jones may be seeking to re-establish her credibility with the broader public after her appearance last year on BBC’s Question Time, which was memorable for all the wrong reasons after a stumbling defence of Labour’s position on Brexit – a policy which was framed by Starmer.
Whether the Independent article achieves any of that remains to be seen. In her piece, Jones writes that one important element was to “speak to our communities about the problems they really wanted answers to”. Which might seem a tad obvious.
“We didn’t overcomplicate it, but focused relentlessly on a tight group of local campaigns and core issues like housing and crime,” says Jones, whose election leaflets included a pledge for “affordable homes for local people”.
Jones also happens to be a shadow housing minister who represents a borough where the Labour council has delivered just three one-bed flats at social rent since 2014.
In the General Election, voting data shows that Jones lost one of the Labour-held New Addington wards – where council-backed housing schemes by Brick by Brick are deeply unpopular.
During the election campaign, consultations about new BxB housing schemes being imposed on the neighbourhood were staged in New Addington, an act of political self-harm by the council which was described by someone close to Jones’s campaign team as “imbecilic”.
This week’s revelations of the mounting incompetence at Brick by Brick, which has failed to register as an approved supplier of shared ownership homes, a large component of the company’s “affordable” quota, will only cause further embarrassment for Labour’s shadow housing minister. Jones has yet to comment on these failures close to home.
“I hope in the coming leadership contest, we can look beyond issues which were unique to the 2019 campaign, and look instead at what will work in the future,” Jones writes, in a barely veiled reference to Labour’s position on Brexit. “Let’s get back to winning.”
“Of course many mistakes were made. But in 16 seats, Labour candidates saw increased majorities. Against a punishing national swing and evidence that we lost both Leavers and Remainers, we must try to take some positives from this,” she writes.
“Croydon Central is a useful test case. In many ways the constituency is a microcosm of the country: voting by a slim margin to leave the EU, but still very much divided on Brexit. It’s a high-rise, metropolitan town centre that gives way to suburban strands, post-war estates and rolling countryside. We are home to commuters, young families, and pensioners.
“This seat was one of two Leave seats which saw an increased Labour majority. From early analysis we didn’t benefit from widespread tactical voting in Croydon – we united a diverse community of Leavers and Remainers, rich and poor, young and old.
“We did it by listening closely to the concerns of our community and speaking back with commonsense solutions to the problems people wanted fixed. I’m not pretending we were unique.
“First, we must move beyond factions and fight on a united front. In Croydon we fostered an environment where no one felt unwelcome and where differing views on the direction of our party were met with tolerance and respect… There is no time for factionalism if you want to win campaigns.
“The second lesson was to speak to our communities about the problems they really wanted answers to. We didn’t overcomplicate it, but focused relentlessly on a tight group of local campaigns and core issues like housing and crime.
“The flood of national policies at times felt too top-down, like we were projecting concerns on to people rather than listening to what they were actually worrying about. Knife crime is at record levels, not just in cities but in towns and shires across the country, yet we barely spoke about it nationally.
“Finally,” Jones wrote four paragraphs before the end of her article for The Independent, “we made sure every element of our campaign was tied together and properly targeted. The data from the doorstep fed directly into tailored messages to wavering voters and heavily targeted local digital content. Whether it was on the doorstep or on social media, the campaign spoke with one voice. As a party, we need to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that raw numbers on the streets can win it alone.
“Whether or not you think we won some arguments at this election, we need to boil down what it takes to win trust back: first identify the problems people really want solved and convince people that we have sustainable solutions – both for them and the country.”
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