It was good to be one of the 800 or so English council winners on Thursday, and even better to beat a Tory. The question is, what are the lessons for the next general election?
First, never forget the truism that all politics is local. Practical work on local issues helps to form a bond with the public and establishes trust with the candidate. It complements the bread-and-butter work of voter identification that underlies all successful campaigning. We need to take this further, building casework teams rather than leaving it just to candidates – there are plenty of bright people, frequently new to the Labour Party who can help in this respect.
Secondly, we ran an inclusive, deliberately labour-intensive campaign and picked up many new participants who had never previously been involved with political activity. Dozens of individuals contributed and shared in our success; some of them are now joining the party. It’s a myth that there is a finite number of volunteers, who you need to go back to time and again. With the right leadership, new people always appear.
Good local leadership will also be crucial to general election success – that’s to say, recruiting, inspiring and harnessing volunteers and making best use of their talents. The Labour Party staff do a fantastic job with meagre resources. For example, they’ve recently been delivering a polling day refresher course via telephone and PC, trimmed down to an hour so you can squeeze it into a busy schedule. But unless something dramatic happens to improve the party’s finances, unpaid volunteers will continue to be our workforce and the drivers of our success.
Although this was a local election, it often didn’t feel like one. Many of the conversations I had on the doorstep were about jobs and the economy. A particular one that I’ll remember was with a small business owner – a Labour supporter whose identification with Labour had strengthened over recent months. He’d noticed how Cameron and Osborne have effectively been talking down the economy, thereby killing the market for his property-related products. He’d realised that Labour was on his side.
But many aren’t as perceptive as this individual, and Labour’s message on the economy has not got through. Time and again I heard the mantra about the “mess” that Labour had left behind. We need to win back these doubtfuls, especially in the South and East, to have any chance of winning. My hunch is that it’s worth going the extra mile on the shadow economy front to answer the sceptics’ question – “what would you do?” – “where would you cut?”. Laborious and expensive it may be, but I reckon that the two Eds should recruit a bunch of economists, reproduce the Treasury models and produce detailed shadow budgets, pound for pound.
This entails taking a constructive opposition role. Where the government is making difficult decisions that we agree with then our support should be clear and unequivocal. It’s good electioneering to oppose police cuts, for example, but we should be more explicit in our support for reforming outdated working practices within the police service. Defence cuts have been agonising but the government has shown courage in forcing them through. They deserve our support and active co-operation.
Thursday’s result in England and Wales was a signal of where we can go and what we can achieve. But we need to sharpen up our act in the constituencies and nationally. I agree with Anna Turley – there is much work still to do. The opportunity is there.