What happened on Thursday was an earthquake of epic proportions. Labour suffered its greatest losses at local government level in decades. The fact that we lost Tees Valley should scare all of us.
I have huge sympathy for the hundreds of Labour councillors who lost their elections. None of this is their fault and they deserve an apology from the Labour leadership rather than self-congratulatory ‘victory’ rallies.
But there were important lessons to learn from Thursday.
The high profile mayoral campaigns that overshadowed the local elections told a different story to the rest of the country. Whatever message hard working councillors tried to get across to the public was sadly overshadowed by the national Labour story, regardless of how hard our councillors worked, this is how the dice roll sometimes. Local messages from Labour groups are drowned out by the national messages and in this set of elections, our national message was not sufficient for reasons I hope to address.
On Brexit we are at times incoherent and have complicated mixed messages for the obvious pressures we have with our diverse electorate, but our problems in this election were deeper than just Brexit. Some of the leaders critics say that we are in a race to the bottom on Brexit and by signing up to it in principle we are dancing to the Tories. Maybe, maybe not.
I think that the real reason we suffered such losses is because we have become a party of backward facing pessimists.
The Tories run and win campaigns on fear. But they only win on these battle lines when Labour are equally trying to run a campaign of fear, pessimism and negativity. Whether this be on threats to the NHS, the bedroom tax or Tory cuts being our central lines. However valiant these causes are, they are responsive and messages of fear rather than hope.
The real story of this election and that of last year’s London election is that well run optimistic campaigns win – even against often brutal and race baiting candidates.
In the case of London last year, few of Sadiq’s message were in the negative. His overall message was about what Londoners could achieve together, with him as their Mayor. And he has followed through since being in office with his ‘London is Open’ campaign. Unrepentant optimism for what an open minded future facing politics could look like.
Equally in Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham seemed to run a campaign focused on the potential all the people in the city have together when unified. This core message was an optimism that transcended the gloomy national political landscape that enabled him to march towards victory without any problems whatsoever when clearly others struggled.
And Andy Street in the West Midlands, forgetting the fact that he seemed to be embarrassed to be a Tory throughout the campaign, did run a campaign of optimism and hope on what the West Midlands could achieve together going forward into the future.
Future facing positivity that answers the challenges of the future wins and that is the fundamental lesson from this election and it is a lesson that Labour nationally seem to have forgotten or want to forget.
Over the past two weeks my social media timelines have been reliving the days before the 1997 General Election and it seems to be that we had the same phenomenon. The Labour message then, as it was in 1945 was one of facing the future, hope and optimism.
Today I decided against my better judgement to read through the Labour Leader’s recent speeches and through recent press releases. We are facing a general election in just five weeks and the entire first two pages of the Leadership press office is full of press releases written in the negative and responding to the Tories rather than setting the tone of the debate. I couldn’t find one positive message that talks about what a Labour government would do without mentioning how horrible the Tories are somewhere in the piece.
This isn’t going to win anything for us.
Now, I am not saying that our backward-looking approach, looking for answers in the past rather than the future is solely the fault of Jeremy Corbyn – it isn’t. Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown suffered from this same problem – too many of our core messages in 2010 or 2015 were about saving this, that or the other from the Tories. But the key difference is that Corbyn amplifies this message by thousands that we are a backward facing party searching the dusty filing cabinet in Southside that hasn’t been opened since the 1970s to find the solutions to our problems in 2017 or 2030.
With this approach, Labour will not win a general election for the foreseeable future. Whatever happens in the next few weeks, we must stop looking to the past and simply positioning ourselves as not the Tories. We must be militant in fighting our future battles with fresh ideas, optimism and hope.