May’s local elections, including the race for London, are a big chance to pass a verdict on the Tory-led government. But, make no mistake about it; they are also an important test for Labour.
Like last year, it’s vital that we see strong progress in May building on last year’s 857 council seat gains and winning control of 26 authorities. History tells us that parties in opposition nationally, pave their march back to power with gains in their local government base.
Therefore, our narrative for May 2012 must be more nuanced than ‘send Cameron and Clegg a message’. As important as it is to highlight the devastating impact on our communities of Osborne’s reckless economic plan and the coalition’s cuts, May’s local government elections are also about us.
To make May’s elections a real chance to pass judgement on Cameron and Clegg we need to be making the big argument in our wards and boroughs about the big choice facing Britain. We all know that all politics is local, but against today’s national backdrop comes a crucial dual responsibility for our local candidates.
Candidates will be the tireless advocates for their communities but at the same time must be winning the argument at street level about the big choice facing Britain. We must use every opportunity on local doorsteps to remind people that the blame for these cuts rests at the doorstep of Cameron’s Downing Street.
It is often said that Labour councillors are the party’s frontline in communities. This is true, and when we are in opposition in Westminster, Labour councillors become much more than loyal footsoldiers and community advocates.
Where Labour runs local authorities and in places we could win this year, Labour councillors become the most important decision-makers the party has. Along with our friends in the Welsh Assembly, it is Labour’s local representatives who will have no choice but to make real and painfully difficult decisions forced by the government’s cuts.
This is the harsh reality we face; the harsh reality of the rotten task facing Labour-controlled councils.
But let’s be clear, unlike the Tories, Labour councils do not believe in these cuts. Labour councillors are faced with a grim task in which we find no pleasure. There is a world away from an ideological zealousness that would drive these cuts through, based on a belief that people and communities should be left to sink or swim, to working hard to mitigate against the worst impacts of these cuts locally.
As we contemplate gut wrenchingly difficult decisions, forced on us by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition, we are facing up to the difficult reality we face. Labour councillors will not desert our posts. To do so would be to let down our communities and those we represent.
The hard left’s carping will go on, as irritating as it is futile. ‘Refuse to implement the cuts’, ‘build resistance’, ‘you are not Labour’; I’ve had them all yelled at me of late, mostly as part of political rants which lack coherency as well as realism. It is not a lame response to say we have no choice; this is the legal and political reality.
Calls to ‘build resistance’ and demands to set illegal budgets are futile. I was at primary school in the 1980s but I’ve read enough, and listened closely to those around at the time, to know the political strategy adopted by some in that era failed. It would fail now as well. It would not only put our communities at even more perilous risk, it would present Pickles and the government with an open goal of epic proportions. It would do untold damage to our party and precisely nothing to protect communities.
Let’s be clear, no Labour politician revels in this task. Nor do we accept the premise of these ideological cuts, their scale and their pace but we do accept our responsibility to deal with them on behalf of our communities. It is on our shoulders this responsibility falls and Labour councillors will work relentlessly across the country to do our damndest to deal with it and deal with it in a way that sustains the best values of strong and active local government.
At the same time we will campaign against these cuts. Whilst locally we face impossible decisions, we will also be making the argument about the big choice facing Britain.
‘Protect frontline services’ is more than a clarion call for Labour councillors in this climate, it becomes an instinctive modus operandi. The challenge is far from easy. Glance at the headline figures in the coalition’s budget settlements and it becomes clear that it is only through the hard work, experience and ingenuity of Labour councils that core and important services can be maintained and the books balance.
In the year ahead Labour councillors will be getting on with the job with usual gritted and loyal determination, carried by the strength of our Labour values.
We will be the tireless advocates for local communities; standing up for the people we represent against this government. We will also be meticulous in monitoring the impact of the coalition’s savage cuts in real-time to make sure the stories of despair caused by these cuts do not go unheard.
Campaigning efforts for the next five months will be focussed on winning back London for Labour and gaining councils and wards across the country. These local victories are crucial, now more than ever there is national significance to the important work of Labour’s local government base.
Rory Palmer is Deputy City Mayor of Leicester. He has been a Labour councillor since 2007. He tweets at @Rory_Palmer