With no money to spend and the finger pointed at them for cuts to services where they run the Council, how should Labour councillors (and would-be councillors) adapt to the new world of local government?
1. Lessons to learn from 2010 to 2015
At our first local party meeting after the 2015 election loss, I pointed out that, of the nine Tory and Liberal Democrat council seats in our constituency in 2010, we had only taken one by 2015 (and that was at a by-election where we threw everything at it). Where were we going wrong?
My view is that we spent five years highlighting cuts to council funding and blaming the government for it. This may have gone down well in seats we already held, but it did little to persuade others to vote for us.
In effect, we spent five years making excuses for, and defending, local government against the people who elect us and who use the services. This does little to prove your ability to stand up for your electorate and it also suggests that you do not listen to them. If people are unhappy with the Council, who are we to say that it is simply someone else’s fault?
This is not an original idea. In his excellent chapter for the book, Sons and Daughters of Labour (a history of the Labour Party in the West Riding), Sir John Harman, the former Leader of Kirklees Council, explained that one of Labour’s problems up to the 1980s was that it was seen as a “defender” of local government. This could put off voters who rightly felt that there was room for improvement.
We need a positive message. Voters need to know that if, they get a Labour councillor, they will get someone who will make a difference to their community and not just give excuses for central government cuts.
2. The “New Council”
Labour Councillors have to learn from these mistakes, but of course we have to do so in the climate of massive reductions in local government funding.
The lack of money means that, quite simply, many of the services which local councils used to provide will either stop or be cut back. There is nothing a councillor can do when the money simply is not there. In Kirklees, the response has been to adopt the idea of the “new council”.
The “new council” is a woolly idea which could mean anything, but in broad terms it seems to mean that, rather than “doing things”, as it did in the past, the council will be more about “helping others to do things”. Of course, this requires a huge change in mindset by employees of the council, as well as councillors and I am sceptical about how well they will adapt to it.
As a concept, though, the idea of being an active part of a council which “facilitates” is one of the two roles which I think Labour councillors should focus on.
3. What should Labour councillors be doing differently?
It is easy to highlight possible past mistakes, but harder to suggest alternatives. I think that the following two ideas would be a good place to start:
a) Labour councillors should be defenders of their communities and stand up for both individuals and groups against those who are treating them unfairly. This might be large companies, housing organisations, utility providers, and of course in some cases it will be the council itself.
b) Labour Councillors should be “facilitators”. This is a horrible word, so let’s turn it into plain English: for people who want to do things, Labour Councillors should encourage them and help them to make those things happen. Voluntary groups and individuals often face daunting “red tape” or procedures which can put them off organising, for example, a summer or Christmas fair on Council land (a confession: I chair such a group and have seen at first hand such bureaucracy). Imagine if you knew your councillor could help you to cut through the red tape and make your event happen. Labour councillors should also encourage local groups who are doing more to continue to develop.
These two roles are at the heart of the Labour Party’s values of community and joining together to make things happen and help each other. In my view, whatever else a Labour councillor wants to achieve, these two roles should always come first.
Many Labour councillors already do this, but we need to shout about it more and make it a pillar of our Party in local government. They also give us a positive answer to offer to the question, “Why should I bother voting Labour?”