Hard working Labour candidates across the country will have much to feel proud of this morning. As I write, we have won 339 seats and secured control of 12 councils. The party is beginning to get a firmer grip over power in local government once more, winning the opportunity to support our local communities and defend local citizens from the worst ravages of the cuts, and through jobs and housing.
The story of recent years had been one of power ebbing painfully away since a hiatus in the mid-90s. Major cities such as Birmingham had become testing-bed for a Tory/Lib Dem coalition, and Labour heartlands such as Newcastle had been lost, as voters used local elections to register their protest at national government.
So news this morning of councils gained across the country and of the Lib Dems haemorrhaging seats around the country will have brought joy and relief to Labour activists and campaigners around the country.
But any sign of complacency is fatal. Labour cannot rely on a Lib Dem collapse to sweep it back to becoming once more the leading power in local government. While it may regain a few vital cities such as Bristol, Sheffield and Newcastle, we should maintain perspective. While students furious at tuition fee betrayal, or traditional left wing voters who flirted with the Lib Dems to try to wound Labour were always likely to return their votes, the real test of Labour’s readiness for power is on wrestling local control away from the Tories.
The Tories currently continue to hold 55 councils across England, and their performance last night will have strengthened their nerve as they have actually gained 37 seats at the time of writing. Not a bad performance considering their national party’s savaging of local public service budgets. In areas I canvassed this week like Dover, we have much to do still to convince local people that Labour are the party that are on their side over the economy, immigration and welfare reform. Labour needs a sustainable strategy for local government to start to regain seats in areas of Tory dominance, just as it has this week in Gravesham. This strategy needs to:
- look beyond opposing the cuts and demonstrate a clear vision for what Labour values mean in action
- learn from the fantastic local campaigns around the country and reach out beyond traditional membership
- support and develop its next generation of local government leaders
- ensure it is on the side of the people in all arguments, including efficiency, transparency, and economic development
- and fight back against the negative briefing from the coalition government that undermines the integrity of and public support for local democracy
That is why today I am launching a new online forum called Progloc (Progressive Localism) for sharing new thinking and ideas on local public services and local government. It aims to provide a platform for open debate and to become a hub for the best new thinking and to reclaim the localism agenda for the centre-left.
The local fightback has begun. Let’s now take it beyond the Lib Dems and focus on winning back power across the local government landscape.
Anna Turley is Editor of ProgLoc and former Deputy Director of NLGN