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Labour councillors reach the places others can’t

Reflecting on Leeds’ local election results this May, which saw wards that have not elected a Labour member of parliament for two or three general elections vote in Labour councillors, it is clear that, in the words of the old beer advert, Labour councillors can reach the parts that our MPs can’t. There are many reasons for this, and it is true that lots of councillors are elected in ‘midterm’ elections where the focus is often on punishing the government of the day. However, it is also clear that often Labour councillors and councils have a good reputation with voters, and I want to explore two reasons why that is.

First, I believe that, for many voters, Labour councillors are seen as credible and active participants in local communities in contrast with what can be often seen as an increasingly remote national political class filtered through a comment-heavy media. When councillors appear in the local media there is no political editor on College Green giving a hot take on what we ‘actually’ mean through, say, refurbishing a children’s playground.

We also deal with our residents through the places they live, not through big national policies or schemes. For me, this is often more relevant to people whose view of government is not coloured neatly into the lines of discrete policy areas but of the consequences of how they come together. So, for example, it is impossible for us to work with housing growth without also dealing with school places and transport infrastructure which involve multiple policy agendas and funding streams.

Working through this approach can often deliver better outcomes. For example, I think the Conservatives have made a big mistake by dragging schools further and further away from local communities and services because too often attainment is linked to children’s lives outside school. These are problems that can be addressed within local communities, not constant changes to inspection regimes.

Councils often have a better record of results than centrally driven programmes. Eight out of 10 young people participating in the Leeds city region’s devolved youth contract have progressed into employment, education or training as a result of support; the national figure by comparison is three in 10.

Because of councils’ unique position in a locality and community we are able to both stimulate economic development and growth and put in place steps to ensure that this growth can be harnessed across society as a whole in an area. ‘Open for business’ should not mean business as usual, and in a city where 20 per cent of people are recorded as living in poverty this is more important than ever. In Leeds we have done this by pressing for the living wage across all sectors and for specific big schemes to be required to take on apprentices as a condition of granting approvals.

We have also supported the Chamber of Commerce and business working together to establish a University Technical College for our manufacturing sector so that students from the age of 14 can learn the skills needed to work in an area that employs tens of thousands of people in Leeds and the region, but which recognises it has an ageing workforce and needs to respond to continue to grow. We are looking at other growth sectors and areas with skills shortages such as digital to foster a similar approach and these are great examples of where we can effect practical on-the-ground actions and results. Strong local leadership by Labour councils can positively help people in our communities into work and with progression through into better paid jobs, and to tackle the big national challenges of persistent underemployment and regional challenges of poorer productivity outside London and the south-east.

In opposition, as we were in Leeds to a prototype Tory and Liberal Democrat coalition for six years leading up to 2010, Labour councillors can still pursue campaigns and take up problems on behalf of local people and root the party deep into the communities they represent.

Second, we can demonstrate from local government that Labour can be trusted with public money and to budget wisely. It may be a current and, in some circles, controversial requirement established in law that councils set a balanced revenue budget and stick to it while being able to invest capital funding in buildings and other assets. However, this is not too dissimilar to John McDonnell’s response to the Conservatives’ 2016 budget where Labour committed to balance the budget with borrowing for investment. While councils do not have the ability to change the local tax system we are often, compared to national government, highly effective at collecting the local taxes that are due, with rates of over 98 per cent being the norm in Leeds.

Many of us in the northern cities, which have been hit by far bigger government grant cuts than the average, feel rightly aggrieved by the way that we have been treated. But we can also show that where Labour does run services we do so with a quiet efficiency and have been innovative in continuing many services that could have fallen by the wayside because of the impact of Tory austerity, even if not everything has been saved.

Labour leadership in local councils can, in many cases, assuage widespread concerns about whether we can be trusted with public money, run public services, strengthen our economies and help all to benefit from growth and do so without the alleged recklessness with which our Tory opponents often smear us. This is hard-won credibility fought for by our thousands of councillors in power or opposition and will be invaluable currency for our next election.

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James Lewis is deputy leader of Leeds city council

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