Labour in local government is the launchpad for general election victory. But right now, it’s over-stretched and the party leadership needs to pay attention

by Paul Wheeler

As the political world staggers towards the summer recess let’s spare a thought for Labour local government.

Because lost in the spats at PMQs and Parliamentary by-elections the sad reality for the Labour Party is that the local election results in May 2021 were much worse than the General Election in December 2019. May saw the continuation of the collapse in Labour support in many traditional towns and shire county councils such as Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire which were Labour controlled within the last decade now have substantial Conservative majorities. Durham a Labour council for over 100 years is no longer controlled by the party. Labour now has only one Police and Crime Commissioner in the English shires and Cleveland, a Labour fiefdom until recently, elected a Conservative Metro Mayor with over 70% of the popular vote. In many district councils Labour groups are in single figures.

Obviously, politics can change quickly. After the April 1992 general election Labour continued to lose support at the subsequent local elections and there was much speculation that the Conservatives were the natural party of government’. Along came the collapse of the Exchange Rate Mechanism and with it the Tories reputation for economic management and within a year they had lost every shire county bar Buckinghamshire. By 1994 Labour gained over 4000 council seats – its largest ever margin of victory – destroying the Conservatives in local government and paving the way for the 1997 general election.

But those hoping for a similar post Covid reaction need to remember that history or hindsight are never suitable explanations for future events. In the past Labour generally faced challenges from mainly Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The local elections this May have shown new challenges from the Green Party in Sheffield and Bristol and from a range of hyper-localist independents in towns such as Bolton and Bury and traditional shire and new unitaries such as South Yorkshire and Stoke.

You don’t need to study ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu to know that fighting on four different fronts presents considerable challenges to any political party.

Yet if Labour is to continue as a mainstream party across England we need to develop campaigns and policies that can respond to these multiple challenges

And amidst the gloom there is hope. Labour was able to advance in local government in new localities such as Worthing and West Oxfordshire. And even more encouragingly we were able to win the new Mayoralties of the West of England and Peterborough with Dan Norris and Nik Johnson (although spoiler alert: the Government have announced plans to abolish the electoral system that made such victories at regional level possible).

Within the ‘Red Wall’ individual ward parties such as Greenbank in Liverpool and Withington in Manchester have shown how to take on and beat strong challenges from the Green Party and Liberal Democrats respectively. Gedling a district council just outside Nottingham is an oasis of Labour strength and control. All of these examples have one thing in common – a record of Labour members and councillors campaigning for local interests and regular contact and communication with their electorate (Greenbank Ward in Liverpool have produced a high quality monthly newsletter to all residents for over 12 years!).

And its not just at the local level that high profile leadership pays off. On a night of misery for Labour in May the Mayoral campaign in Greater Manchester saw Labour win every ward – in many instances wards that had huge Tory majorities six months earlier,

So how we translate local campaign brilliance into consistent success across the country and especially in the English shires. Well firstly we must connect our local and national campaign strategy. I speak with some knowledge here as I was Labour’s Election Co-ordinator from 1992-95. It was clear from the leader’s office and national party that the local elections of those years were the centre piece of our campaigns.

With a team of six full-time, well respected staff in the Labour Local Government Office we were able to launch major campaigns such as “Tough on Crime. Tough on the causes of Crime” through local council groups making them much more relevant and immediate. We initiated a quirky but popular campaign in 1995 entitled ‘Operation Toehold’ to gain Labour representation in every district council. Sometimes it went a bit too far. One campaign initiative was to associate every local campaign with the new leadership as in ‘New Labour, New Manchester’, ‘New Labour, New Sandwell’ It was all going well until the Regional Office rang to say “We’ve got a problem in York with this…”

Sadly, at the moment Labour local government is the poor relation within the party despite donating millions to the party through voluntary donations via the Association of Labour Councillors. This has to change. Apart from anything else it is evident from the recent by-elections in Hartlepool and Batley and Spen that the perceived record of Labour locally can be used against the party. Ten years of austerity has fundamentally altered the role and ability of local government to respond to the needs of its residents. Wider society has also changed with many people becoming more transactional in what they expect from local councils and less forgiving about the problems faced by local councils. In many traditional Labour areas the hyper-localist parties have been able to trade on feelings of neglect and being left behind by the distant Labour council. None of this is welcome but we have to provide campaign and policy solutions for local Labour Leaders to successfully respond.

Again, there is some hope. The Labour Group at the Local Government Association have been supporting a range of impressive development programmes and most notably the Next Generation Programme. Over the last ten years the Next Generation Programme has identified the talented and ambitious in local politics and encouraged them to progress throughout the Labour movement. Examples include, but are not limited to the leaders of Camden, Ealing, Newham, Oldham, Enfield Brent and Bassetlaw and the deputy leaders of Birmingham, Chesterfield and Barking and Dagenham. Two of the four elected Police and Crime Commissioners are graduates of the programme and as a helpful by-product it has created a significant and supportive group of Labour MPs. It works because it is a high-quality development programme over three weekends which provides on-going support and mentoring and is focused on increasing the diversity of Labour local leadership.

If we want to change our political fortunes over the next few years we need to start building up our local base and start now.

Paul Wheeler has been a member of the Labour Party for over 40 years. He previously worked at the Labour Party from 1986-1995 and has been the Special Adviser to the LGA Labour Group Next Generation Programme since its inception

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30 Responses to “Labour in local government is the launchpad for general election victory. But right now, it’s over-stretched and the party leadership needs to pay attention”

  1. Ann Onnimus says:

    It’s notable that most of the few areas where Labour did well at the recent local elections were places where candidates had adopted clear left-wing rhetoric and policies instead of following the lead of the useless centrists who have a stranglehold on the national party. There’s a lesson there.

  2. Tafia says:

    Unless ypou can win outside the cities you are going nowhere.

    And the current obsession with identity politics, LGBTA2Z, BLM, harbouring aims of closer EU alignment etc etc etc is destrying you. Until you acceopt that, drop it all and re-invent, then you will remain excatly what you have become. A largely metropolitan, middle class and young professionals party, inhabited by bitter Remainiacs and obsessed with rubbish and totally irrelevant outside of that small corner.

  3. John P Reid says:

    To quote Blair “don’t fight The conservatives on culture you’ll lose the Working class vote

    Yet The guardian says -Labour shouldn’t try to get the Working class vote, Find new sort of victim such as Clive lewis saying he’s a victim over the race report and the fact it said don’t give black kids a criminal record for Having a Knife on them is like the KKK.
    Both side of middle class liberals bald men fighting over a comb be they blairites or Corbynites if they ignore The working class.

    Its Middle-class liberals just don’t accept the working class are socially conservative, that they’d destroy their own constituency to burn down their house down to force out of constituency people talking about the working class And Don’t want to acknowledge they exist as they’d sooner be surrounded by middle-class people who are young and in to the bank of mum and dad, who live in the city don’t have a mortgage therefore that the new victim is ignoring the working-class as the group they need to cater for to make themselves feel good as they are the champions of but that will never be enough to win unless they think they can mythically get a grand coalition of new group who they can feel they can treat that, After all students are a Better sort of victim , to have. status of championing them. when really they are just using it as a way of them having to admit they will never be enough and it should be enough of collective of people the Labour Party feels those who don’t get a voice in society, should be there to represent and yes that means the traditional working-class, but by just regarding them as racist, Its either white middle-class liberals to tell the working class how to live their life and not be bigots for them to want to aspire to be led by middle-class liberals telling them that the idea is that in society it can be tough in a community that closes ranks where those without look after each other but really the middle-class liberal view of not feeling that the crime views and the police aren’t always there and that instead Labour should be told to be ashamed of itself for being scum.

  4. John p Reid says:

    On the fact Labour Party is losing the working class does it get it holds them in contempt? Paul Embery is asked are there any politician who gets it and always Paul replies John Cruddas, It’s not whether they get it ,there are people full up signed to the culture war Who get it ,they just don’t want to deal with it I think they hope they can find another way out ,in fairness to some of the people who get it don’t want to admit it
    i know two ( 1 black female and 1 white gay) who backed Dawn Butler for deputy both back Lisa Nandy a leader who was having explained to both of them ,to embrace the working class

  5. John Reid says:

    That way they will realise the white middle-class liberal who rents rather than having a mortgage from university is the real victim rather in the working-class person who did the blue-collar job could’ve been unemployed for years and lived in a single state with a high crime council where is really the high victim of working-class status but now they’re the wrong sort of victims aren’t those the Labour Party should still have the underdog it should be representing the spokesperson for when no one else can help as Labour shouldn’t really be for the working class at all

    If we can’t help the working-class or socially conservative ethnic minorities we need to find ourselves a new set of people we need to treat as a pet . but feel sorry for gay people women a victim the working-class aren’t the victim

    we want to say we’re good people, who won’t be voting for the tories and that the working-class are racist, to justify not wanting their vote

    how good we are we need to decide middle-class young people haven’t got a mortgage private sector rich kids middle-class of the victim because we decide a benefit of that I’d not have to talk to the poor

  6. wg says:

    Labour in our cities now depends heavily upon the universities and this has created a sense of social apartheid.

    The ‘Gammonisation’ of our elderly has been obvious for many years now, with the universities leading the charge against the elderly and their conservative (small ‘c’) values.
    And the obvious contempt for the non-university educated is now quite apparent.

    As one Blair political strategist (pfft) John McTernan, told us:

    “The truth is that the white working class are not Labour’s base any more.”
    “It is the professional middle classes, together with the young, and black and minority ethnic voters, who are Labour’s base now.”

    Ramsay MacDonald must be spinning like a top in his grave.

  7. Alf says:

    We win where we’re socialist; we lose where we’re Tory-lite. It’s obvious when you look at the local election results.

  8. A.J. says:

    Reinvent as what, though? God knows, the so-called ‘Conservatives’ or ‘Tories’, those that haunt the dreams of Guardian readers, are capable of muddled thinking (and just plain simple wrongheadedness, as with the likes of Heath), but for real stupidity, arrogance, self-satisfaction and self-entitlement (not to mention economic illiteracy) the Labour Party is a world-beater. They played the Blair card (slightly concealed hatred of England/the UK, preferring the EU superstate on the one hand, Clintonian chicanery on the other; love of mass immigration no matter how great the cost; the Britpop approach to governing); are they now going to bring back ‘Blairism’? No. They’ve swallowed the drug and now crave more: of everything Tafia outlines above. They’ve caught their collective balls and arses on the barbed wire and that’s that. They ought to hope and pray not to win again.
    Listening to my wife on the NHS and pay this morning I thought how, in that respect, very right wing she has become. Labour will never get her vote again. Yet the ‘Tories’ she votes for you generally wouldn’t trust to run a hamburger stall in the market.

  9. Tafia says:

    And Biden, after withdrawing from Afghanistan as per his foolish and very short sighted election pledge (we’ll end up having to go back in), authorises the first US airstrikes in Somalia as al-Shabaab is no fast approaching being in a position to overrun the country.

    Is it dawning on him yet that the only way you can beat extreme islamic fundementalism is to exterminate it wherever it appears – because it is determined to exterminate you.

  10. Join P Reid says:

    Is there a covid bounce The Tories have averaged 43% all year but labour has fallen from 36.5% first 2 and half months of the year to average 32% for the last 4 and a bit months with about 1.5% going green 1.5% reform party 1.5% Libdem

  11. A.J. says:

    I don’t know what some of you are bleating about. We’ve had socialists in office (if not necessarily in power) since 1992. The UK electorate adores socialism. Just look at all the hot air generated over that hideous organization that calls itself a National Health Service. I doubt if we’ve had a truly Tory Prime Minister since Lord Salisbury. And don’t all these whining Remainers/Rejoiners catch on that the EU is a Thatcherite monster, not Tory but Liberal? Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner knew it. So, probably, does Corbyn (who, as it happens, I much preferred over Brown or Blair; not quite as obviously and openly dishonest).
    On a more serious note, has anyone been horrified by the price of their recent bar bill?
    Inflation already biting?

  12. A.J. says:

    We had a little local government by-election here yesterday (Thursday 22 July). A few hundred votes were cast, Labour won, the Greens came second, the ‘Conservative’ limped in third. Labour are now widdling themselves with excitement on social media, doubtless there will be dancing in the streets over the entire weekend (weather permitting) and an entire ox will be roasted, bread and soup handed to the poor of the parish etc. etc. But whether the victory of one grinning little imbecile in a football shirt heralds a General Election victory I rather doubt. Perhaps, in due course, the little chap will become the Cabinet Member With Exclusive Responsibility For Clearing Up Dogmesses.
    I have to admit, though, to living in a town which was a ‘Property Hotspot’ in 2019 and which fancies itself as very trendy indeed. I suppose that might make a difference.

  13. A.J. says:

    Like me, some of you will be cheered to read Simon Heffer crapping all over Boris Johnson in the ‘New Statesman’. Major was bad enough, then Hague, Howard, Duncan-Smith, Cameron, May, now this buffoon. Heffer is right, it’s only the fact that the Opposition is so dismal Johnson is able to bluff his way around. But that situation may well change, bad as Labour are. Time, then, for the so-called ‘Tories’ to give the fool his marching orders and search desperately for someone with a bit of honesty and backbone.

  14. Anne says:

    A closer analysis needs to be taken as to the Manchester results. A lot is also down to the candidates chosen and often local issues – what are they going to bring to the role.
    Agree that work needs to be undertaken to improve grass roots – identifying suitable candidates and working on a strategy for the area. What is required and needs of the area – this can be framed intoLabour policy.
    Also in fighting has got to stop – this name calling and rubbishing candidates is just not helpful.

  15. andy williams says:

    Alf We win where we’re socialist; we lose where we’re Tory-lite. It’s obvious when you look at the local election results.

    You can win every single council at every single level from parish to county, win Wales and win Scotland if you want, but you have no power other than deciding what day of the week bins are emptied and how much to spend on flowers. The power is in Westminster and if you don’t win a General Election, you have no power at all. Councils can only spend their budget, and Westminster allocates that. Wstminster is the power – the rest is bollocks.

    Labour has only one a general election on a socialist manifesto once – 1945. Come the following election, the voters had had enough of ‘socialism’, felt a bit wealthier and Labour barely scrapped a win and their government collapsed within 2 years. Wilson’sLabour knew that and were barely even mildly left and had started to embrace neo-liberallist economics (he closed more mines that Thatcher remember). And Labour’s greatest PM – Blair, wouldn’yt piss on a socialist of they were lying in a gutter burning.

    The more Labour tacs to the left aty national level, the larger is the defeat it suffers.

  16. Tafia says:

    A.J We had a little local government by-election here yesterday (Thursday 22 July).

    Of greater interest was Leicester where a senior level Council by election also took place on Thursday. It took place in a heavily indian seat, coincidentally also Leicetser East, where Claudia Webbe is the MP, currently awaiting trial. The ward is one of the most heavily hindu populated council wards in the country (at this point, hark back to that Labour leaflet in Batley & Spen). The Toties stormed the seat from nowhere, winnning 44.7% of the vote, an 18.4 point swing to them, Labour’s vote dropped -15.6 points to 33.2% and this was despite the Green Party vote collapsing -7.1 points to 8%. Giving the Tories their first councillor on Leicester Council for donkeys years. That leaflet Labour used – highly ethnically divisive and bordering on racxist, has alienated the Hindu population the length and breadth of the UK.

    Bizarrely, guess what the local (hindu dominated) Labour party did to spite Starmer ? Made Keith Vaz (of rent boys, cocaine and washing machine salesmen form) , the Chair of the Constituency Labour Party. Should Webbe be found Guilty (which looks an odds-on certainty) and have to resign, Vaz has declared that either he or his daughter will be the CLP’s candidate to replace her, and if the NEC tries to overrule their selection, one of them will stand as an independent and split the Labour vote.

    For Starmer not to realise that taking sides of the Kashmir issue is highly divisive and corrosive I find absolutely incredible. A halfwit knows not to take sides because of the ethnoi-religious background to the case so eith Styaremer is lower than a halfwit or he did it deliberately and has decided there is more mileage in the south asian Muslim vote than their is in the south asian Hindu vote.

  17. John P Reid says:

    All aj comments spot on

  18. John p Reid says:

    Rosie Duffield retweeted a quote that Trans activists refer to gays as Queers when they’re not even gay men or women ( some heterosexual men )
    And the tweet criticises this and it’s been deemed transphobic by LGBT labour they’ve told starmer with draw the whip from her

    If Rosie has the whip withdrawn

    I’ll resign my Labour Party membership

  19. John P Reid says:

    So after a few Corbynites have come out in favour of vaccine passports such as left foot forward and Novara media Starmers done The u-turn and now will vote with the gov’t and support the Aparthied passports

    Scratch a liberal and underneath you find

  20. Tafia says:

    The Taliban assualt on their spiritual capital of Kandahar has now begun. Most of the city is cut off, with suicide bombers reported to be in “swarms”.

    They are also reported to be massing to cut the main route from Kabul to Kandahar and preparing to lay seige to the city of Ghanzi.

    The US describe the Taliban as having gained “Strategic momentum and initiative”. Afghan army units and police units are continuing to surrender to the Taliban in droves.

    Mobile phones, computers, internet etc are now banned in all areas of the country cntrolled by taliban, with the penalty being immedaite summary execution by either hanging or shooting. This applies to women and children as well.

    This is a direct result of middleclass wooley-brained liberals who somehow think ourselves and the allies shouldn’t have been there. Whatever you do, DO NOT condemn the atrocities now being carried out by the Taliban – you gave them the green light to do it – and be under no illusions, as soon as they control Afghanistan they will set about destabilising Pakistan.

    I guarentee you within a couple of years we (the west) will have to go back there with a fresh military intervention – and next time it will be far far harder because the Taliban are bigger, better armed and more tactically aware.

  21. Tafia says:

    And since I wrote that last comment, the Taliban has commenced beheading anyone who worked for the allies – such as translators, kitchen hands, cleaners on the bases, admin staff etc etc.

  22. Tafia says:

    Following Labour’s loss of over 120,000 members since sir Keith Mackerel took over the party (and accelerating), Labour’s financial headaches are about to get a whole lot worse, as the GMB union has announced it’s pulled funding for the party’s London branch. The Union has just announced they are turning off the taps for London Labour after a caretaker was sacked by Labour-run Islington Council after 24 years’ service.

    And as soon as Steve Turner wins control of Unite, that’s Labour in the trash can as the entire Unite donation will be broken into individual packets up and Labour will have to ‘buy’ each packet in return for specific policies.

    Meanwhile the redundancies among party workers continue unabated as they struggle to balance the books.

  23. Tafia says:

    Meanwhile, now that we are out of the EU and no longer governed by their monopoly rules, the UK government has nationalised the defence manufacturer Sheffield Forgemasters in order to secure the supply of parts that are vital for the Royal Navy’s ships and submarines, as well as the UK’s nuclear industry and the UK’s booming windfarm industry.

    The Ministry of Defence said it would spend £2.6m to acquire the whole of the company, and planned to invest as much as £400m over the next decade to replace critical equipment and infrastructure required for the company’s military production capacity.

    Union leaders welcomed the takeover.

  24. Tafia says:

    Meanwhile, in a rare outbreak of sanity in the USA, their unions have welcomed the decision that all federal employees are to either accept the vaccine, or they will be required to take a lateral flow test daily in front of their supervisor.

    Several states – both Democrat and Republican, have already announced they will follow suit for all state employees. Major employers are now condidering likewise.

    Can you imagine our unions being that welcoming? Or the Labour Party?

  25. John P Reid says:

    The guardian talk of a Progressive alliance to stop tory votes ,Thinking it’s enough for labour to have a Pact with greens and libdems to win

    Suppose labour had gone in to coalition with the libdems in 2010
    Baring in mind Labour’s vote only went up 1.3% in 2015 and The Libdem vote fell by 15.3% in 2015

    Do you think the Libdens vote would’ve fallen anywhere near as much in 2015 with a lab/: lib coalition with anti labour libdems up north voting tory in 2015 as a retaliation rather then sticking with libdems as they were anti labour libdems up north?

    In 1995 A northern union leader was shocked and turned to Tony Blair and said to him I’ve worked out what you’re trying to do showing surprise in his suggestion he said “You’re trying to get Tory voters to vote for you”
    Now The likes of Polly Toynbee Feel there’s no point to this as getting Libdem and green votes is enough

    Labour feeling to get back ex labour
    working class voters who lent their vote To the Tories , that means a hell of a lot of apologising to the working-class from middle class London labour after years of holding the working class in contempt

    I think the problem stemmed from 1987 labour was trying to get SDP voted back on two fronts

    in Hornsey and Dulwich The sort of people who voted SDP were working class ex labour voters
    Where as in Lewishsm ( where toynbee stood for the SDP) the SDP voters were middle class

    for Labour to win back EX voters it is for them
    To do a-lot of apologising to the working class

  26. A.J. says:

    Does Boris Johnson have any political beliefs? That’s the question that’s being asked in the ‘Daily Mail’. I should have thought the answer was obvious: no, not really. A bit like a Liberal Democrat perhaps. But it may explain the secret of his success. The average voter is generally vague about political life, no? I remember, years ago, a chap I knew who had a German father. After a trip to whichever part of Germany his father’s family lived in he turned to me and said what a relief it was to come back to England, where no-one seemed to take politics seriously. This would be around 1984. Even during a General Election in the UK it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether anything’s happening – unlike in, say, Catalonia or Italy, where the atmosphere often seems heavily charged. I’ve been caught up in two major demonstrations in Italy, which seemed to come out of nowhere.
    Vague about your intentions, Boris? Keep it up.

  27. John P ried says:

    By-election latest

    The Tories can afford to lose a few votes to libdems down south if they gain hundreds of votes from labour up north

  28. A.J. says:

    Nearly all of the Conservative (libertarian, I suppose) journalists have now turned against this very feeble government. And that shows you what kind of mess we’re in, post-Brexit. Yet most ‘Conservative’ governments fear Labour/the Left. Why should that be? Largely, perhaps, because they have few principles, are too willing to see themselves as ‘nasty’, and worry that the electorate will draw these conclusions for themselves and turn towards an attractive Leftist figure (Attlee, Wilson, Blair). Besides, the amount of talent on the government front bench is no greater than that of the Opposition. None of the big beasts that some of us remember from two or three (or even four) decades ago.
    Is the answer to simply desist from voting? I calculate that by the time I’ve walked to my local polling station, put the cross in the box and walked back again, I could have watched a classic Laurel and Hardy short whilst drinking a large gin and tonic.

  29. A.J. says:

    I’ll go further. Johnson must go. He must be replaced by a genuine Conservative. The sour memory of Cummings must be erased, if at all possible. Starmer isn’t up to much and Labour will almost certainly lose the next General Election, but the ‘Conservatives’ must not be allowed to go on deceiving the voting public.

  30. John P Reid says:

    When labour used to get desecrated in general elections they won councils in the sort of seats labour needed to win at a general election same noe they are the same ones they need to win in council elections yet labour are losing council seats to The Tories in by elections of seats also needed to be won to win a general election

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