While politicos focus on Eastleigh, possibly the first One nation by-election, we shouldn’t forget that the English County Council elections are due on May 2nd THIS year, and they will surely be the first national One Nation election for many years.
They are the first electoral opportunity for the public across England to express a view on Labour’s One Nation idea, and the next step in Ed Miliband’s journey to Downing Street.
A good campaign for the counties is an important step – it offers a test of our reach across England and of our ability to craft a story that resonates with those living in the coastal and countryside parts of the country, as much as with our urban heartlands.
And it is an essential step given our poor performance in the equivalent elections in 2009 when Labour councillors were worse than halved to just under 300, and when our four remaining county councils were lost. The only county Labour defends is the Durham unitary authority, while the Conservatives run all the shires except Cumbria. While there may only be one way – Up, rather than Essex – how far Labour can spread into the shires is a key test.
So an opportunity is emerging, one that reinforces our electoral journey, shows we have reach across the country and that can give us more control of greater swathes of local government. Although the number of elected positions in counties is smaller than that for district councils, they are responsible for spending much more public money and delivering many more services. In several we may well win control, including Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire, while in others we can gain influence and representation in areas from which Labour disappeared while we were in government nationally. From 1993 until 2005, it is worth recalling, Labour was the largest single party on Suffolk County Council. Of the 106 seats in Labour’s target list, 38 seats (plus parts of six more) have county council elections in May 2013 including key targets like Amber Valley, Gloucester, Norwich North and Pendle.
Taking the opportunity means having some policy that means something to those who live in country and coastal areas, having a local presence and having the support of the wider party. Members based in cities and major towns across England may already have some connection with the CLPs just across the administrative county boundary. But there is much more that could be done to support colleagues who are fighting these important and difficult elections. People in Coventry, for instance, are nearly surrounded by Warwickshire and activity in Nuneaton, Rugby, Warwick and Leamington could help install a Labour administration in county hall. Stoke-on-Trent, Derby and Nottingham are also surrounded by marginal counties, and the metropolitan areas of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and the Black Country can also help Labour in counties such as Lancashire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire.
Many members in London may already be thinking ahead to the Borough elections of 2014 – in terms of momentum and reach these elections could be as important, so how to help out? Well things might be a little more complicated, but by administrative fluke there are almost as many London Boroughs (33 including the City) as there are two tier and unitary county councils (34). It isn’t too late in the day for London members, borough by borough, to be linked to a county of England for these elections; and even if that only means one or two trips during the short campaign every county would benefit from the people power; and of course the mix of members from the big cities and town, coastal and rural areas would be good for all concerned. Members from the counties around London have already pulled together to help London Labour in the 2012 elections.
Over time such ‘twinning’ would also help our policy making process too; helping ensure that policies do more than reflect just the circumstances of more densely urban areas. In the short term our policy makers and our Shadow Cabinet members should try and reflect a message and policies for these elections that reflect the needs of people living in less dense areas, where connectivity (by car, bus, broadband and rail) is much more important in day-to-day living, where time is more precious as everything takes longer to do, and where choices are often limited. Sometimes there is no choice, in care, education or other services (public and privately supplied).
Let us make the connections within the party that help deliver for this One Nation election.
Lewis Baston is a Senior Research Fellow at Democratic Audit. Hywel lloyd is a founder member of Labour Coast and Country