I am writing to you as Labour’s leader in local government to offer a special thank you for your huge efforts in last week’s election.
I am writing to you as Labour’s leader in local government to offer a special thank you for your huge efforts in last week’s election. Councillors are the campaigning backbone of our party, and I know you will have done everything you could to return a Labour government.
The stark reality is that as Labour councillors we now face yet another five years as the thin red line between a Tory government and local communities. Just as we have before, I have no doubt that the 7,000 Labour councillors will rise to the challenge: holding the Tories to account, finding distinctive Labour responses to the problems handed down to us from Boris Johnson’s government, and working hard to try and deliver local solutions to the biggest problems we face. And as ever, we’ll have to do this with one hand tied behind our back.
After ending up with the worst election result since 1935 it is natural that we should listen, learn, and try to understand what happened. But as Labour’s local representatives we don’t have the luxury of time. We don’t have five years to show that Labour has listened and learned - there are just five months before the next set of crucial council, regional mayoral, and Police and Crime Commissioner elections in May 2020. Dithering around won't help win a single seat, and so it is absolutely vital that we have a new and credible leader in place and making progress before then.
Anyone who spent time on the doorstep in the seats we lost spoke to voters who felt completely disconnected from Labour in Westminster, despite retaining a strong connection to their local Labour representatives. Indeed, what is striking about last week’s results is that many of our biggest general election losses came in seats where voters still overwhelmingly vote Labour in local elections - think of Sandwell, Durham, and Wakefield. Similarly, voters in places such as Stevenage, Crawley, and Telford consistently place their trust in Labour councillors to lead their council but haven’t felt able to vote for Labour in Westminster elections for many years.
Westminster politicians who want to rebuild our vote in these places might want to ask Labour councillors how we do it, rather than treating us as an inconvenience. Labour in local government consistently offers example after example of radical, credible, and popular policies, and of winning and holding power, but the national party did almost nothing in this campaign to highlight our work and celebrate Labour’s local success. As Mayor Andy Burnham said this week: ‘I would like them to be a bit prouder of what Labour figures outside Westminster are doing to protect people from the worst of the Tory government’.
Those who now seek to lead our party would do well to listen to us and reflect on what we say. Because the future of the Labour Party can’t only be about what is happens in the Houses of Parliament, it’s got to be about what happens in our communities, in our town halls, and in our regions. If Labour is to regain the trust of the British people, our next leader should show that our party trusts them too - pledging to take power away from the centre and returning it to communities themselves. They must be the leader that will finally respect and trust Labour councillors and local councils, and understand that decisions should be taken as close to people as possible.
Labour councillors are the lifeblood of our party, and we now stand between the Tories and the most vulnerable. The levy paid by Labour councillors funds the national Labour Party to the tune of some £2.5m a year, for which we get very little in return. We carry huge influence in our local parties, and we could make all the difference in this leadership election. The LGA Labour Group won't endorse anyone for leader or for deputy, but we will be making sure every candidate hears our message loud and clear. We’ll be hosting all the candidates at a hustings at our Labour Local Government Conference in Nottingham on February 8th, and if they aren’t falling over each other to pledge more of the recognition, status, and representation that Labour councillors deserve, then they will show themselves to have learnt nothing from this defeat.
The work of Labour councillors and success at local elections provide a bridge that can bring millions back to voting Labour. Let’s make sure that we have a leadership in Westminster who will trust us, and help us to build that bridge together.
Cllr Nick Forbes
Leader of the LGA Labour Group