If the result in Bradford tells us anything, it’s that politics is unpredictable. When you least expect it, the public do something out of character. Labour had been faring well in public opinion polls in the last few weeks, but the result in Bradford goes totally against this. The public have acted unpredictably and shown that elections can’t be taken for granted.
We can speculate why the public voted as they did in Bradford – there is already plenty of commentary about what happened and why. It is important to learn lessons and for Labour, this has to be done quickly to avoid disappointment in the local elections in May – particularly in areas where mayoral referendums are taking place.* Polling suggests that the public are starting to support the case for elected mayors. But for those in the Labour party who are campaigning against having elected mayors, there is a real risk that Labour could appear to be arguing for ‘politics as usual’ when actually, the Bradford result tells us that the public want politics to change.
Of the areas facing referendums, 8 are Labour controlled councils. You would think therefore, that Labour would be well placed to win the mayoralties, should the public decide that the mayoral model is what they want. But Labour should not bank on this.
We know that some Labour groups have expressed a dislike for the mayoral model. It’s reported that the Labour leaders of both Leeds and Manchester are not 100% in support of a yes vote in the referendums. But we also know that the public are marginally in favour of a yes in the referendum. A recent Gfk NOP poll for the BBC reports that 53% of people said they would like an elected mayor with 37% disagreeing and 10% undecided. Even in Doncaster, where by all accounts the mayorality hasn’t been ideal, 59% of people were still in favour of the model. What does this tell us? It would appear that the public are in favour of change and are likely to vote yes in the referendums. But also that if the public vote yes, but local Labour groups campaigned ‘no’, will Labour groups be in danger of looking like the party that don’t support reform, or popular public opinion?
I wrote back in February that Labour can’t take the referendums and elections for granted; in the past, where local Labour groups have campaigned against the change to mayoral governance but the public chose to change the system, Labour haven’t been successful in winning the mayoral elections. Doncaster, Hartlepool, Mansfield, Middlesbrough, Tower Hamlets and North Tyneside – are all ‘Labour areas’ but Labour doesn’t hold the Mayoralty in these areas.
With the public reminding us on Thursday, that yet again can be unpredictable; a shake-up of local democracy is looking more likely. And with the referendums looming, local Labour groups in these cities may want to start preparing for mayoral candidate selections. We have already seen that this debate has been hotting up in Birmingham; but what about elsewhere? No doubt Labour will want to avoid another Tower Hamlets situation.
Importantly though, Labour will need to develop a strategy on the doorstep. Mayoral elections have been a prime space for independent candidates previously – take Doncaster, Hartlepool, Mansfield, Middlesbrough and Tower Hamlets as examples – all of which are arguably traditional ‘Labour areas’.
In Leicester the party got the strategy and the candidate right; Peter Soulsby was a popular MP and former council leader. In Liverpool, Labour’s Joe Anderson is building some serious momentum. Both Leicester and Liverpool have advocated change – and have been on the front foot because of this. It is looking like the same could be true in Birmingham, where a number of high profile Labour candidates are supporting the mayoral model.
Labour won’t want another result like the one in Bradford West. Where Labour looks like they are taking voters for granted the voters remind the Party who is in charge. Regardless of how local Labour groups feel about whether the mayoral model is right or not, now is the time to plan for candidate selections and strategies on the doorstep, and to be on the ‘front foot’. For Labour to win the party needs to be seen as the progressive, not conservative, choice. Come May 3rd, Labour should make a positive case for how the Party will take these cities forward.
* Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield.
Laura Wilkes is a Policy Manager at Local Government Information Unit. She writes here in a personal capacity.