We should be punishing the Tories in local elections, says Edward Carlsson Browne

The jury is still out on new Labour’s worst mistake in government. It could be the Iraq War, tuition fees, 10p tax, regulating the banks or failing to call an election in 2007. It could be that the Blair-Brown feud was allowed to continue for a decade. Those who believe the rot started early might argue that it was when we decided to accept a donation from Bernie Ecclestone.

In my opinion, it was none of these things. I believe that the greatest failing of the last government, in which Blair and Brown were both culpable, was that they stood by as our ranks were decimated in local government. Our support fell every year until 2009, when we reached our lowest number of seats since local government was reorganised in 1973. Our slight rebound this year was our second worst result in this time.

Even in the 1980s, when the party was less popular than gonorrhea and ward meetings were slightly more painful, we could win local elections. We were ahead in national equivalent vote share estimates for half of that decade. Since 2006, we haven’t hit 30% in the same measure.

When we were in government, we could get away with this sorry state of affairs. In opposition, local councils would have been our weapon against Cameron, except that we only control 14% of them. I’ll spare you the list of once rock-solid Labour authorities that we’ve lost. If you don’t know, you should look it up just to see how far we’ve fallen. If you do, you won’t want to be reminded of the sorry state we’re in.

Two points stand out: first, the losses since 1998 give the lie to those who argue that only the 2010 defeat is relevant. David Miliband is right that we didn’t lose Stevenage in 2010 because of Iraq. But even where I am in Cambridge I can name four wards we would have won this year if that war hadn’t sapped the residual goodwill towards us. We need to win back the wards we’ve lost over the past decade, and if that means Labour occasionally has to appeal to soft left and socially progressive middle-class voters, this is something the right of the party is just going to have to accept.

Second, it’s a disgrace that I haven’t  heard any Labour leadership candidates talking about the local council elections that are happening in Exeter and Norwich since the areas failed to become unitary authorities. If Ed Balls wanted to show he’s not part of the North London intelligentsia, he could bolster his ‘provincial’ credentials by returning to Norwich and knocking on doors day in and day out. If David Miliband was serious about wanting to win the south, he could be spending as much time as possible making sure Labour is the largest party on Exeter council after the coming elections. And if Andy Burnham and Ed Miliband want to show that they too care about Labour in local government, then there’s a by-election for a county council seat in Cambridge coming up. As the ward organiser for it, I’d like to invite them to join us in trying to get the vote out for Labour.

It is unlikely that there will be another general election until 2015; the Lib Dems will want to hold out for as long as possible before being punished by the electorate. That means that there’s only one area where a Labour leader can thwart the Tories and wield real power. That arena is local government. Every Labour leadership candidate should be hurrying to show that they’ll be an asset to this campaign. Failure to do so would betray a worrying lack of interest in the long-term health of Britain’s only progressive party.

Edward Carlsson Browne is a Labour Party activist living in Cambridge. He isn’t providing a link to his blog, because there’s no reason you should waste your time reading that when there’s a council by-election you could be helping out on.

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4 Responses to “We should be punishing the Tories in local elections, says Edward Carlsson Browne”

  1. Alex Ross says:

    Interesting post but I can’t help but feel that it’s unrealistic to ask Ed Balls to door knock in Norwich day in day out when he represents Morley, is Shadow Education Minister and is running for Labour leadership!

  2. mike says:

    see country standard blog on Exeter

    “????? ????”
    (Come and Take Them)

    The Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC set an alliance of Greek city-states against an invading Persian army.

    Though vastly outnumbered, the Greeks (Spartans) held back the Persian advance until the Greek army could regroup.

    (The Grecians is also the nickname of the Exeter City FC who play in Red & White).


    On 9th September 9th the Labour Party in Exeter will emulate the great battle Thermopylae by taking on the might of Exeter Tories and their Coalition allies the Liberal Democrats, in hand to hand fighting in thirteen keenly fought by-election Council seats.

    To the victor the spoils of war could be the control of Exeter City Council. Presently, the Coalition forces control 16 seats to Labours 8 (and real Liberals 3).

    Early reconnaissance from scouts in Exeter are pointing to Labour gaining ground and routing the enemy in Polsloe (Con), Cowick (Con) , Pinhoe (Con) and Exwick (Ind) wards, while holding firm in Whipton Barton, Mincinglake, Priory, Newtown Wards.

    Hopes run high of even mighty St Davids wall’s falling to the might of Septembers Red Army.

    But we have a long march so rest and prepare for battle comrades the hour is near at hand “????? ????”


    The Greek phrase “????? ????” (“molon labe”, or “come and take them”), a quote attributed to Leonidas at the battle, has been repeated by many later generals and politicians in order to express an army’s or nation’s determination to not surrender without a battle

  3. Parliament is out of session, there are no by-elections that I know of in Leeds or Wakefield local authorities (by all means, correct me if I’m wrong) and if he campaigns normally there is no way he can win the Labour leadership.

    Whereas if he temporarily relocated to Norwich (city of his birth and all that) he could help us to win several more seats there and by making an effort to fight the Tories in the only arena that matters for several years he’d stand a chance of boosting his standing in the leadership election.

    Local elections let us weaken the hold of Lib Dems and Tories over the machinery of government in a very real way. Precious little else does.

  4. Adam says:

    Labour’s decline in local government had nothing to do with deliberate or accidental neglect: it was an inevitable consequence of being in power nationally for 13 years. In exactly the same way that by 1996, after 17 years in power, the Conservatives found themselves in overall control of just one county council, no Metropolitan districts and (from recollection) just 13 districts.

    If Labour did absolutely no campaigning between now and next May we would still be able to anticipate substantial gains in the council elections as the pendulum swings back as Conservative national government again weakens them. Not advocating laziness, incidentally.

    It is sad that local government elections are so substantially determined by national popularity of the government of the day rather than council’s own record (only the most dreadful local record can offset a national trend) – but it’s not something that can be changed and it’s not related to the amount of power, or lack of it, councils have – when Labour was routed in 1968 and, to a lesser extent, 1977, councillors had substantially more power to influence local policy.

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