Tribune, 3 April 1992

In an exclusive report, Paul Anderson goes behind the scenes at Labour’s HQ
Jack Cunningham, Labour’s cam­paigns co-ordinator, is in bullish mood as he surveys the south London skyline from his office in the party’s Walworth Road headquarters. “The verdict is so far so good,” he beams. “It’s so much easier to keep the momentum going from the front.”
It is 11am in the morning, and he has already been up nearly six hours. He gets to Labour’s temporary media centre at Millbank, across the road from the Houses of Parliament, at 6.30am, and by 6.45am he is in his first meeting of the day with the Labour media team, discussing the day’s tactics. After chairing a press conference for half-an-hour from 7.45am, he does three or four interviews. Then at 9.45am there’s another meeting, this time of Labour’s campaign man­agement team, which assesses the state of play and determines the main messages that the par­ty’s “key campaigners” – the Shadow Cabinet politicians who are touring Britain – should con­centrate upon for the day.
We have caught Cunningham during the hour or so which he puts aside for scouring the news­papers: the day still has a lot more in store. “More broadcast interviews at lunchtime and maybe in the early evening, chats with all the heads of department at Walworth Road, another campaign management team meeting at 7.30am. With luck I’ll be in bed by midnight and then it’s 5.15am all over again.”
A fortnight of that would do most people in – and Cunningham also has the problem that his own constituency, Copeland, in far-off Cumbria, is highly marginal, so he has to fit in campaign­ing there as well at the weekends. But the prospect of winning power is obviously a heady tonic. Cunningham looks as fresh as a daisy – and his enthusiasm is infectious. The party is in bet­ter shape than at any time since the early six­ties,” he says. “Everybody’s just getting stuck in.”
The campaign management team which Cunningham heads co-ordinates the work of five campaign groups: projec­tion, under David Hill; organisation, un­der Joyce Gould; monitoring, under Larry Whitty; internal communications; administration.
The projection group is probably the most glamorous and is certainly the biggest, with nearly 140 people listed in Labour’s special cam­paign internal telephone directory, although not all are squeezed into Walworth Road. Projection includes the Shadow, Communications Agency, under Philip Gould, based at Transport House, which is more or less in charge of party election broadcasts and oversees events and propaganda; and it co-ordinates the activities of Neil Kinnock, the other “key campaigners”, the media office and a campaign assessment unit headed by Patri­cia Hewitt, also at Transport House.
As far as public perceptions of the campaign concerned, the most important part of this is probably the key campaigners unit, which is re­sponsible for getting the 14 or 15 Labour high-ups on to the television and for making sure that they do not make fools of themselves. Every “key campaigner” can be contacted at any time by telephone and by fax wherever he or she may be, and each has at least one member of staff at Walworth Road, working on background briefings.
So far, the system has worked a treat. While the Tories have lost cabinet ministers on the road for hours at a time, Labour has been able to keep track of its politicians constantly, keeping them informed of what is going on. That has meant fewer gaffes and fewer television journal­ists frustrated because they cannot get the pic­tures they want.
All the campaign events except photo-opportu­nities are run by an office headed by Jim Parish. “Anything that has to happen we make happen,” he says, puffing at a cigar. Today his tasks have already included the 7.45am press conference in Millbank and a 9am press conference in Glasgow.
Still to come are a lecture by Kinnock at 3pm in Manchester, an afternoon policy launch with Robin Cook in London and an evening rally in Norwich. Parish is in charge of two road teams, complete with stage set, sound, lighting and stage management, which are touring the coun­try for nightly rallies. The biggest was due to start in Sheffield as this issue of Tribune went to press. “That lighting worked well this morning,” he tells a passing colleague as we leave his office.
The monitoring group directs Labour’s opinion polling (in league with Patricia Hewitt), tracks the media, watches what the opposition is up to and, along with the organisation group, keeps an eye on the cam­paign in the target marginals. For the duration of the campaign, Larry Whitty is effectively Labour’s intelligence chief, and he seems to enjoy the role, even though he gets up even earlier than Jack Cunningham.
“Everything’s going quite smoothly,” he says. “More people than we hoped have become active, although some extra effort is still needed in the marginals. And the Tories’ campaign can’t get much worse. They’re on the ropes. They haven’t had the same degree of planning that we’ve had, and Central Office isn’t as experienced or as clear as we are about our roles. They’re certain to get better, but we’ll get bet­ter too. We’ll be getting different people in on the creative side for the last couple of days, and of course we’ll run down some of the routine stuff and get people out to the constituencies.”
The opposition-watching unit now has more than 1,000 quotes from Tory politicians on its computer database which it feeds out to the projection people – the first time ever that gaffes have been computerised by Labour – and there are spies in the Tory press conferences collecting raw material every day. “We’re expecting some­thing big in the next few days,” say Whitty. “Per­sonal attack on Neil, nasty stuff…”
Most of the times when Joyce Gould hits the headlines it is for expelling members of Militant from the Labour Party, but now, as head of organisa­tion, she is in charge of liaison with the trade unions and regional Labour Parties, advice to agents, targeting key groups of voters (particu­larly women), keeping Labour’s computers at work, the legal support unit and a share of re­sponsibility for target seats.
Gould breaks off a meeting with Sally Morgan, the target seats supremo, to tell us that it is all going very well indeed. “We haven’t got the major problems we had in 1987 and we know where the minor ones are. Labour is going very well. In the West Midlands, there has been a complete switch among the C2s. The north-west is looking good too.”
”We’ve been planning this campaign for two years – and now we’re seeing it happen,” she says. “It’s going absolutely to schedule. We still need more effort in the key seats, though. Why don’t you tell people to find out what their near­est one is?”
Agents and candidates are getting daily brief­ings which even the hardest-nosed politicians praise, there are direct phone lines to most con­stituencies and the key seats are all connected to electronic mail for thrice-daily missives. There is instant telephone policy advice available to can­didates, and more than 100,000 pocket policy handbooks have gone out. “There’s more activity than at any election I’ve fought since 1974,” says Geoff Bish, Labour’s veteran policy director.
Behind the scenes is an army of em­ployees and volunteers, each one as cru­cial as any high-profile spin-doctor, poli­cy boffin, strategist or bureaucrat at the top of the pile.
The computer department has 300 constituen­cies on its database for direct mail and canvass­ing lists (it had 30 in 1987), and it turned out 20 million labels for direct mail in three weeks after the publication of the new electoral rolls in February. Most of its work is over now but it is still running helplines for local Labour parties that can’t get their computers to work properly. The heaviest pressure is also off the writers and sub-editors in the propaganda unit, who have turned round countless leaflets and docu­ments and whose greatest feat was getting the manifesto into printable shape within four hours of the politicians deciding what they wanted in it. “We were working at fever-pitch in the fort­night before the election was called. We’re still busy but the worst is over now,” says Charles Foster, one of three writer-subs now engaged on transforming bureaucratese into English for the various daily briefings.
The external print-buying operation is awe­some: Mo Caldon, the print buyer, reckons that she has ordered more than 12 million leaflets, 65,000 posters, 30,000 estate-agent-style boards and 10,000 to 15,000 stickers emblazoned with candidates’ names.
The internal print (the briefings for candi­dates, the press material and so on) is printed on the premises. One of the printers, Bob Smith, says that he has been on the go constantly since the campaign started – “Not overtime, just ex­tended hours, you could say” – and the people in charge of getting the stuff out have had a similarly exhausting time. “We’ve been doing 10 or 11 hours on the trot, but no complaints,” says Ivy Smith, who runs the internal despatch unit in the Walworth Road basement. “The cost of the postage is just too frightening.”
The bulk of the mail bill, however, is spent by external despatch, which took over an old Post Office building in Union Street near Southwark Bridge 24 hours after John Major announced the election date and since then have shifted most of the leaflets, posters, rosettes and so forth or­dered by Walworth Road to constituency parties and individual Labour supporters. The proud boast is that everything goes out within 24 hours. The efficiency of the operation has meant that Labour has won the poster war hands down just about everywhere except in a few Liberal Democrat strongholds.
So who pays for all this? Well, the unions and Labour Party members’ sub­scriptions, of course, but also the indi­vidual donors who answer Labour ap­peals for cash. Last Thursday, the fundraising unit near King’s Cross station broke off for cele­bratory champagne at the beginning of the af­ternoon having reached, nearly a fortnight before schedule, the £1 million target which had been set for the whole campaign. Unsurprisingly, the fundraising organisers and their volunteer helpers, many of them pensioners, are pleased as punch. “It’s incredible,” says Tony Manwairing, the fundraising supremo. “Really fantastic.”
Making sure that too much isn’t spent still re­mains a nightmare, however. “This five or six weeks is the equivalent of six months of normal activity,” says a hassled-looking Peter Ballard, pouring over spread-sheets in the office manage­ment department.
It has been an exhausting day in an ex­hausting campaign, and there is still plenty of time to go. But the Labour headquarters exudes an optimism that rubs off. This time, Labour really believes that it is going to win.
I think so too, but a word of caution is in order. On hearing my report of high morale and opti­mism at Walworth Road, a friend who was there in 1987 tells me: “It was just like that last time. They even had a cabaret for election night – and people really thought victory was possible right to the very last minute. After the first few re­sults came through, the whole place simply col­lapsed. I’ve never seen anything like it.” Even this hardened politico has money on Labour this time, but sanity demands that we temper our op­timism of the will with plenty of pessimism of the intellect.
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