Hazel Blears’ famed sunny optimism was sorely needed on a pretty gloomy day for Labour, and she didn’t disappoint with her contributions to a useful and timely debate on Labour in local government. With a few notable exceptions Labour’s performance in winning councils has been poor in the last few years, and the discussion aimed to examine what can be done to address this decline.
Gerry Stoker emphasised how central government needs to devolve more power to local government to demonstrate clearly Labour’s commitment to localism. By running locally-focused campaigns local Labour parties can demonstrate their relevance and independence to their communities.
Theo Blackwell also wanted the central party leadership to give local Labour groups more slack to innovate – giving the example of how Camden’s Labour Council had wanted to experiment with banning plastic bags several years before the current wave of local bans began, but were not given the freedom to get on and give it a go. Local experimentation can be the best way to develop and test experimental new policies.
Stella Creasy believed that articulating a clear local narrative can overcome national concerns. She gave the example of How Iain Duncan Smith has managed to paint himself as the ‘defender’ of her local hospital, despite everything Labour has done to invest in and reform the NHS. Labour activists have to show they are an effective agent for social change, and that Labour’s philosophy of working together is the best method for achieving social change.
Hazel responded to the other members of the panel by agreeing that it is vital to increase the solidity of Labour’s local government base, and its power to make decisions; both because experience on the ground shows that Tories and Lib Dems slash services for vulnerable people, and because having a strong local party is crucial for sitting Labour MPs’ campaigning work. She restated her view that most people join the Labour Party to ‘do’ something, not just go to meetings; and we have to change the way we organise to address this. Labour members have to have a strong presence in civil society and voluntary sector. Finally, we need to reinvigorate our political confidence; show passion, zeal and insurgency; and resist the temptation to become professionalised technocrats, talking in a language people don’t relate to.
Some comments from the floor complained about a lack of support for local Labour groups from the central Party, whilst recognising the severe strain on resources. There was discussion about whether local elections are dominated by national polling trends, with a majority believing effective local campaigns could buck these trends. The importance of selecting candidates early in the election cycle was stressed by many, as was the huge pressures on time and finances that being a councillor entails. Stella picked up on this, arguing that the expectations the Labour Party has of councillors and members are appallingly offputting to most people. She wants to see greater professionalisation of councillors, to recognise the massive amount of work involved. It is not acceptable to expect people to give up their social life, as one councillor in the room admitted he has done. It will be interesting to see what Jane Roberts – who chaired the debate and listened intently to contributions throughout – recommends on Friday in her report into barriers and incentives to people becoming councillors.