“Who are you calling a loser?” asks Tim Cheetham

Much less widely reported, amidst the twists and turns of the general election result, were the local election results of the same day. Holding the locals at the same time as the General can often have a big influence on the results. This can be a sore point to those of us in local government, as it indicates a lack of concern about what we do the rest of the time. Also because it leaves our fate disproportionately in the hands of our Parliamentary colleagues – and leadership – making their faults, faux pas and fighting a factor in our campaigns. This was underlined handsomely during the Euro elections last year (I’m looking at you, Hazel and James!).

What was most striking this time around was the contradictory trend at the polls. As Labour majorities fell and seats disappeared nationally, the opposite happened in local government. Labour gained control of 15 councils, almost doubling our total. Labour Councillors who have, for the last few years, been culled in their hundreds every May, found their numbers swelled by over 400 new recruits nationwide.

In fact, Labour was the only party (and that includes the many minor parties too) to gain councillors this year. Brent, Camden, Coventry, Doncaster, Ealing, Enfield, Harrow, Hartlepool, Hastings, Hounslow, Islington, Lewisham, Liverpool, Oxford, Southwark, St. Helens and Waltham Forest all became Labour councils on May 6th. A further group of councils, like Leeds, have since formed Labour-led coalitions, further strengthening Labour in local government.

Something to note about that list is that it isn’t just dominated by traditional Labour heartlands. Enfield for example, has only been Labour controlled 3 times in history: in 1964 when Labour as rising under Wilson and ‘94 and ‘98 when we were peaking under Blair. Hard to claim that we are on the up currently, yet Enfield is back in the fold. Hastings too, having gone Labour for the first time in 98 until 2002 is – against the recent trend – Labour again. Liverpool has only been Labour controlled for 3 of the last 20 years; gaining it back from the LibDems is a very significant victory indeed.

The heart of this success has been the localist programmes and manifestos; the door by door, street by street campaigning; and the reliance on the Labour grassroots message; not the media-driven showpiece nor the grand staged speeches. Labour in local government has become somewhat distant from the Westminster circus – and has connected better with the public for that.

So, as we listen to the party leadership contenders earnestly explaining, to those of us who haven’t, how we must have ‘lost touch’ with the voters, let us try to remember that though they are right about the problem, we already know the solution. The party can learn a lot from our own grassroots activists about connecting and campaigning, which, like all the things we do well, works better bottom up than top down. I believe that what we have to learn from this Labour local resurgence against the tide is that party members, activists and supporters are where the fight-back will be won, not in the newspaper headlines or on Sky news.

The collective wisdom and combined effort of the Labour movement has always been our greatest strength: forgetting that and moving away from it has proved our greatest weakness. Let’s not, then, elect a ‘leader’ in the sense that they will speak and we will follow – let’s elect a chief spokesperson, who will speak with OUR voice and OUR policies. Because OUR voice, and OUR policies, are already winning.

Cllr Tim Cheetham is a Cabinet Member in Barnsley.

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