“Members & affiliates are understandably furious that these shenanigans may well have cost Labour the chance to form a government. Sadly, that can’t be undone. But what the party can do is get to the bottom of this by commissioning a forensic audit, & we must then take action against those responsible.”Steve Howell
Steve Howell, Labour’s deputy director of strategy and communications in 2017, responds to a party official’s admission that he siphoned off members’ money to a secret general election campaign to support his political friends. This rogue operation channelled funds away from winnable marginals to support a handful of very safe Labour seats. It was ‘ultra vires’ and quite possibly cost Labour an historic victory.
Last week Patrick Heneghan, Labour’s former elections director, admitted that during the 2017 general election he secretly channelled party funds to a small group of political allies in defiance of official campaign decisions
Heneghan claims this rogue operation was ‘legal’ because it had the approval of former general secretary Iain McNicol, but the party’s constitution is very clear that it is the leader who has “overall responsibility for all elections” and appoints a campaign co-ordinator and campaign committee “to ensure that all Labour Party election campaigns report to the leader”.
In 2017, the campaign co-ordinators were Ian Lavery MP and Andrew Gwynne MP, and I was a member of the Campaign Committee (GECC) appointed by Jeremy and reporting to him.
Heneghan was accountable to us, but he appears to think he was the decision maker. Throughout his blog defending his actions (see link at the end), he refers to the GECC as ‘Corbyn’s team’ and talks about us ‘asking’ for things and him ‘agreeing’ to them.
The GECC had from the outset wanted to target enough seats to win, and this was finally ‘agreed’ by Heneghan and McNicol on May 15 when 93 ‘offensive’ seats were added to the list. However, the list still included 139 Labour-held seats and the GECC queried 14 very safe ones – with an average majority of 11,117.
Heneghan has now confirmed that, shortly after this, he secretly set up a rogue operation at Ergon House to continue to support these 14 seats (which had already had fulsome funding for five weeks in the form of direct mail, digital advertising and staff support.)
The Ergon House operation was – according to the Huffington Post – known as the ‘Bespoke Materials Service’, but this cost heading doesn’t appear in budgets provided to the GECC or those prepared jointly by Heneghan and me for presentation to union leaders on May 4.
The mystery further deepens because it seems Ergon House supported candidates over and above the 14 the GECC had decided should come off the list. In his blog, Heneghan says: “This operation helped us hold on in constituencies like Newcastle Under Lyme, Ashfield, Barrow, Bishop Auckland and Dudley North”. But not one of these five seats was among the 14 the GECC had queried – all of them had official national support right through the campaign.
In attempting to take credit for holding seats like Barrow and Dudley North, which no one disputes were vulnerable, Heneghan is unwittingly drawing attention to the hole in his argument. The GECC can hardly be accused of political bias when it was not querying and continued to support Ian Austin and John Woodcock, candidates who were among the most venomously hostile to Jeremy.
In his blog, Heneghan accuses “Jeremy’s team” of not being prepared to take polling information seriously and says it was “pointless” discussing targeting with us. But our concern actually was that he was dogmatic in insisting that campaigns can only move opinion by “two or three per cent” and dismissing all the early signs that this was not the case.
To be fair, he wasn’t helped by hopelessly inaccurate data coming from the party’s retained polling company, which on the eve of the election was still forecasting the Tories would win by a 13-point landslide.
But Heneghan could have listened to Professor John Curtice, who pointed out that the local elections on May 4 were not so great as they seemed for the Tories. Or nearly two weeks later, he might have noticed that pollster Matt Singh was writing in the FT (May 16) of a Corbyn bounce.
Instead, however, he persisted in arguing for a defensive strategy, while secretly siphoning support to strongholds with huge majorities – three days after the Singh article appeared.
So, would the money diverted into the rogue campaign have made a difference?
Having portrayed himself as the master of targeting and said that “without the defensive campaign we would have lost many more [seats]”, Heneghan’s blog then deploys some political gymnastics to assert that the money spent by his ‘Bespoke Materials Service’ would not have made a difference.
In a piece for @LabourOutlook a few weeks ago, I explained how the £135k we know was siphoned off could have been used to send a GOTV mailing to more voters.
On the day of the print deadline for that mailing, which was part of a direct mail plan proposed by Heneghan and agreed by the GECC, we only had enough money – £50k – for it to go to 12 offensive marginals. At a unit cost of 35p, the mailing would reach 10-15,000 voters in each seat.
Had the £135k been available, we could have sent that mailer to nearly 400,000 more voters. On a typical 3% response rate for direct mail, that would have boosted the Labour turnout by 12,000 votes across up to 30-40 more marginals.
There was no disagreement about the merits of the GOTV mailing, and it’s disingenuous of Heneghan to argue now that a tactic he recommended would not have had an effect.
Members and affiliates are understandably furious that Heneghan’s shenanigans may well have cost Labour the chance to form a government. Sadly, that can’t be undone. But what the party can do is get to the bottom of this by commissioning a forensic audit, and we must then take action against those responsible.
This is now an issue of governance. The Bespoke Materials Service was a clandestine, rogue operation. The spending on it, including staffing, was not authorised by the party leader or his campaign committee and was therefore ultra vires. In other words, the officials concerned acted beyond their powers.
Members and affiliates, who contributed more than £8m during the campaign, have a right to expect the culprits to be held to account.
And it’s not just supporters of the previous leader who should be concerned: allowing officials to act as a law unto themselves sets a bad precedent and is hardly the kind of governance you would expect from a party that seeks to govern.