The moment that the exit poll was announced on December 12th will be ingrained in all of our memories for a very long time. Watching hard-working, committed Labour MPs and their staff being unceremoniously defeated as communities that had been red for generations turned blue in an instant was a truly demoralising experience that our party cannot afford to ever repeat.
Since that humbling night, much of the discussion has focussed on who is best equipped to lead our party. While it is true that we need someone with strong leadership qualities and a bold, credible policy offer, we cannot simply pin our hopes on a new leader in Westminster to guide us from the wilderness.
After a decade of one of the most destructive governments in British political history, we are now further away from power than at any time in living memory. The task of getting us back into office is herculean, and too great for one person. That’s why we need to take a collective approach to rebuilding – one in which our Labour councils and mayors play a crucial role.
We must remember that, despite failure nationally, much has been achieved by Labour in local and regional government. If we are to win trust and power again, it is essential that we continue to demonstrate our credentials as the party of devolution and showcase our accomplishments. Our councils and combined mayoral authorities can serve as our shop window for the benefits of Labour values in action, prove what we could do for our country and help pave the way for a new Labour government.
For too long, particularly in deindustrialised communities like the ones I serve in South Yorkshire, Labour has relied on familial and cultural connections to secure votes. The problem is that memories of Margaret Thatcher’s toxic legacy are fading into the history books, and these ties are becoming ever more tenuous. We cannot depend on them.
If the period following the financial crash has taught us one thing about British politics, it’s that the right is much more adept at telling stories than the left. On both austerity and Brexit, we’ve been outmanoeuvred by highly effective and emotive political campaigns.
It is imperative that we now craft a new story: one in which the Labour Party addresses the failures of an outdated economic model and the causes of political disenfranchisement. We do this by putting people at the heart of decision-making and helping build collaborative, sustainable and inclusive economies in every town, city, region and nation we represent.
For my part as mayor of South Yorkshire, I am proud that after an impasse lasting years, our local leaders came together in January and agreed a devolution deal. This settlement will secure hundreds of millions of pounds of investment and create thousands of good jobs and a plan for co-operation right across Yorkshire.
We’re busy forging a new strategic economic plan, with the goal of building a truly sustainable and inclusive economy where everyone shares the benefits. Much of our efforts have concentrated on improving our public transport system. We’ve developed a transport strategy and integrated rail plan; established a major bus review; launched a new tram-train from Rotherham to Sheffield; and appointed Sarah Storey as our active travel commissioner to tackle air quality and congestion and improve public health.
While I am pleased with what has been achieved, the truth is that it has been an incredibly challenging period, and it often feels like we’re just tinkering around at the edges. A decade of austerity under the Tories and the coalition has crippled the efficacy of local authorities to provide vital services. Worryingly, we still don’t know how the government intends to maintain the level of funding needed for South Yorkshire, which has received £500m from Whitehall and the EU over the last five years. Rebuilding under these conditions will be gruelling but we owe it to those communities devastated by cuts and systemic neglect who sadly felt they couldn’t support us this time.
Much has been said about the need for change and what our party risks if it fails to act. And yet the defeat also offers us the opportunity to forge new relationships in our heartlands. We must redouble our efforts and work to deliver for our communities, even in the face of the massive obstacles in our way. My objective is for South Yorkshire to lead the way.