It’s only three weeks since one set of local government elections but we need to start thinking now about how Labour can make the most of the opportunity presented by next May’s county council elections.
This set of elections is the biggest chance Labour has for a major breakthrough in rural and suburban areas before the general election.
If we play it right we can turn rhetoric about ‘no no-go areas for Labour’ into reality.
The councils being fought next year were last contested in May 2009 at the absolute nadir of Labour’s fortunes. They consist of all 27 shire counties, seven English unitary councils and the Isle of Anglesey county council in Wales.
We got a dismal 23 per cent national vote share in 2009 and have control of not a single county council. Indeed, only Cumbria is even a hung council. All the 26 other shire counties are currently Tory, so the only way is up!
But council control changes will not be the big story next year – there are not many counties we can actually take control of (pre-2009 the only shire counties we held were Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire). The real story will be about the number of councillors we can gain, and the geographical spread of these into areas which are seen as weak territory for us, or form parts of constituencies we could win in a general election.
We only won 178 councillors in 2009 out of the 2,362 that were up for election.
There are five key ways in which we can maximise the gains we make from this low base:
1) Twinning. There are no elections next May in London or any of the metropolitan boroughs where a large slice of our activist base is. We need to systematically pair CLPs without elections to the nearest area that does have a contest, and organise weekend campaigning daytrips to the countryside! CLPs in London and the mets should have named county council candidates they are twinned with and agree to six trips during the year. Professional organisers from areas without elections also need to be seconded for the short campaign, returning the favour for the support London got in this regard this May.
2) Targeting. The data from this November’s police commissioner elections (voter ID returns and sampling at the counts) will tell us which county council divisions we have a realistic chance of taking.
The results from last time were so weak that if we only use them to assess marginality they might lead us to be overcautious and pessimistic.
3) Select county council candidates early and train them properly. Judge them on target voters contacted and new volunteers recruited. Indeed, that could even be part of the selection criteria!
4) Build capacity in defunct parties: where we only have paper parties we should use techniques pioneered by Movement for Change to restart activity around local issue-based campaigns where they team up with charities and voluntary groups. This will help rebuild party profile and recruit new volunteers. The metric for rebuilding should not be low voter contact numbers or impossible leafleting across big rural districts but rather volunteers recruited – especially volunteers who are already plugged in to the area as community activists.
5) Voter registration and turnout expansion. We can’t rely on the 2010 (and older) canvass returns! In areas where Labour has been absent as a campaigning force for years, knocking up the historic Labour vote just won’t cut it. Instead we need to focus on Labour-inclined voters and areas (using Mosaic demographic data from ContactCreator, which the Refounding Labour changes mean that every CLP has for the first time) and blitz them. A lot of these seats can only be won by creating a new electorate from people who previously didn’t bother to vote, or sometimes even register, particularly in local elections. With the VAT rise and fuel duty hitting petrol prices, the ‘squeezed middle’ is a message that should resonate, bringing these voters not just back to Labour but back to politics full stop.
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