‘Say no to pessimism’ – what UK Labour can learn from its local counterparts
Almost a year on from the general election, many of the images of that night will be fading from the minds of Labour activists as we turn to face the future. This is largely a good thing – to win again we must be focused on the challenges confronting the country now, not caught in a loop, refighting elections of the past. But there are some lessons, some moments, that should stick with us as we plan a route back to electoral success. Of course there was that shock at 10pm of seeing the exit poll and realising that what we knew in our hearts, that our apparent poll lead was soft, was true. But if there is one image I think we should remember, it is Nuneaton.
Nuneaton has come to symbolise the 2015 election, and it is seats like this that we will need to win again if we have any hope of forming a majority government in the future. These M1 corridor seats, such as Watford, Milton Keynes, Northampton, Rugby. Places that Labour members of parliament pass through on the train on the way back to Birmingham or the north-west, but rarely stop in.
In the run-up to the 1997 general election Gordon Brown and Robin Cook held a competition to get to as many of these seats as they could, tearing up and down the motorway to visit schools, pop into local businesses and, of course, speak at fundraisers. It will surprise nobody to learn that Gordon, never one to take a loss lightly, made sure he came out on top. It is this spirit we need back in the party, and it is great to see that Jon Ashworth and Gloria De Piero have embarked on a similar listening tour.
The problem is not just that Labour MPs do not visit these places, but that the language we speak seems so disconnected from them. We look and sound like a very urban party, concerned with high rents but not with the impact of interest rates on mortgage repayments. Worried about train fares, but not about petrol prices.
It is also reflected in the way we talk about local identities and devolution. Yes, city deals can be great things, and I am fiercely proud of Liverpool. But what if you don’t come from a city? How does devolution work in Northamptonshire or Warwickshire where you have a patchwork of towns under the umbrella of a county council? More fundamentally, what does local civic identity look like in those places and how can it be harnessed?
These are the questions we need to start asking, and urgently. Small-town Britain is slipping through our fingers. It was not just that we failed to win these seats last time, we actually went backwards. Rugby, a classic bellwether seat, went from a Tory majority of 6,000 to one of nearly 11,000. It will take a 1997 scale of swing to turn it red again.
So where to start? For me it is obvious. We should listen to our people on the ground, especially our Labour leaders in local government. I am travelling around the country meeting the people running many of these towns and cities for Labour, and learning about how they are transforming the places they live.
Take Corby, a seat we won in a byelection in 2012 but then lost again on the national swing last May. Corby may now have a Tory MP, but it has a Labour borough council led by the brilliant Tom Beattie, a former Unite official and evangelist for local government. What struck me about Tom was his deep understanding of what mattered to Corby people. Dismissing those who simply want to ‘shout from the rooftops about the unfairness of life’, he spoke with real passion about how the council had negotiated good deals with housing developers, brought the first cinema to the town and in the process increased the majority on the council to the largest it has been in a quarter of a century.
His conviction was that if Labour can show how it will improve the lives of ordinary people, then success at the ballot box will follow. He has created a real feel-good spirit, never talking down his town or obsessing about problems and challenges. Always talking up the positives. ‘Corby is in a good place’, he told me. ‘Be ambitious for the place you live in’. This sentiment was echoed by Peter Marland in Milton Keynes, who described his city as a ‘can-do place’ and ‘an aspirational city’. It sounds simple, but there is an optimism here that is often missing from our language.
Councils like Corby or Milton Keynes offer us invaluable bridgeheads into the swaths of England we will need to carry in 2020. Learning the lessons of their success, and understanding how we can build on this in our national messaging, is vital if we are to broaden our appeal beyond out heartlands. Crucially, we must fight tooth and nail to defend these councils this May and not lose the connection they give us to the lives of hundreds of thousands of voters.
By the time we get to 2020 it will be a decade since we had a Labour government in Westminster. But right across the country, millions of people are living under Labour governments in town halls, cities and local authorities. Every day these Labour governments are solving problems, innovating and translating our common values into solid outcomes for people.
Winning in these towns means understanding what people care about and what future they want for their area. We must be unrelenting in our ambition, and that ambition should start with a determination not to let a single council fall to the Tories.
Alison McGovern MP is chair of Progress
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