We are out of power in Westminster. But that does not mean we are out of power full stop. I know first-hand the difference that Labour councillors can make. When my dad walked out on us when I was seven years old, we were left penniless and eventually homeless. It was a Labour councillor who helped us find somewhere to stay, and then got us into a house on a local council estate.
That councillor, the wonderful Bill Bellerby, came back to my mum years later and said: “Now it’s your turn. Stand for the council, and help other people the way you were helped.” So she served as a councillor for 20 years, including a year as the socialist Mayor of Guildford. And I grew up knowing the power and importance of local government, and the huge difference it made to people’s lives, a lesson I’ve never forgotten.
In the next five years, as we face the long, hard slog back to power in Westminster, our councillors will be beacons of the transformative power of Labour politics. It is vital that we recognise their importance, and treat them with the respect they deserve. Despite the huge cuts in central government grant – my council has suffered 70% cuts – local councils are still responsible for spending £1 in every £4 of public expenditure. They run services that support tens of millions of people, and are quite literally keeping people alive.
Under my leadership, there will be a fundamental shift in our relationship. We must prioritise the issues and the work coming up at local level, using that as a base from which we mount our national campaign and win back power in Westminster.
We can talk all we want about the greater devolution of powers to our local authorities, mayors and indeed devolved nations. But I know that true power, and real change, goes hand-in-hand with community campaigning and community organising. Let’s make no bones about this: these campaigns have been critically underfunded. It is shameful that, despite contributing over £2m annually to the party via the councillor levy, and much more through local donations, Labour councillors receive almost no support from the party centrally.
What we need is devolution of resources, proper support from the party, and crucially the devolution of the party’s policy-making to our local candidates, councillors, activists and members, rather than having our manifesto drawn up in some back room in Westminster. Only this way will we give ourselves the best chance of winning council seats, and defending our communities, starting with elections this May.
Let me take this opportunity to outline my three-point plan to support councillors under my leadership:
1) A fair share of party support. We must make sure that every local Labour group – especially where we in opposition or minority administration – has a full time Labour organiser, whose focus of activities is determined by the local councillors and the local party.
2) Getting the basics right. As it stands, the only thing that the Tories have devolved is responsibility for their cuts. Delivering local services well, despite cuts, is crucial to building the credibility with the public that we need to win back power in 2024. That is why I will ensure there is more support for policy development and best practice sharing.
3) Being a campaigner-in-chief. When I first became an MP in 2005, there was not a single Labour councillor in Islington South and Finsbury. Now we have nothing but Labour councillors. One of the major reasons we have turned things around is the amazing job that our Labour council has done, but also the dedication and hard work of our united local party. As leader, I will campaign in every local election possible. Coming from a once-marginal seat, where we first won with 484 votes, I am a campaigner to my marrow.
This is a three-point plan for opposition, but there is so much more we could do as a national government on the side of local authorities. My priority would be to take a cold hard look at just how chronically under-resourced local government is, and to repair that damage. From there, we must not be afraid to be the agents of radical change. Enforcing a tougher policy of ‘use it or lose it’ to tackle the issue of land banking and empty properties. A greater integration of social care with the National Health Service. Providing modern and relevant youth services and establishing a statutory duty to provide them.
I am confident in our ability to do this together. In the last 15 years, we have completely turned around Labour’s fortunes in Islington. We did this through the close co-operation of our MPs, our councillors, and the local party. Our success was built on unity, hard work, and mutual respect.
This is the kind of leader I can and will be. I have the strength, experience and passion to lead that fight and take us back into power. We can take our party and our country forward. But I need your help. With your CLP’s nomination, I can continue to make the case passionately for local government in this race. We need to give the membership the widest possible choice of leader, and as a party we need the most honest thorough debate about our future. Join me, nominate me, and let’s start the fight back together.