On Saturday the English Labour Network held a successful event in Stroud about how Labour could better reach and represent the people of Gloucestershire.
On of the speakers was Cllr Kate Haigh, who is the LGA Labour Group’s South West Representative and an on the new English Labour Network Steering Group. Kate gave this important speech titled “Back to the Shire”, which looked at why Labour simply has to win over Tory voters, and how. Think place, says Kate…
Let me start in Matson, Robinswood and White City. My ward in Gloucester. The place I’ve represented for over a decade. Its white and working class. Traditional Labour heartlands but with a mix of electoral indifference, small c conservatism and being subject to national Labour fortunes, is a council marginal with a 300 vote majority. I’ve knocked on every door, attended every kind of group and community meeting. I written to them, listened in councillor advice sessions or on visits around the ward with my fellow councillors.
They are pro Brexit – until recently there was a significant UKIP vote and one of our challenges has been that vote turning to the Tories. But many of those leavers are Labour voters. The day after the referendum I bumped into 2 of my electorate in Primark. They knew I had run the remain campaign. “We voted out”, they said, “what will happen now?” I replied that I did not know and – seeing my sadness about the results – they said “don’t worry, Kate, we’re still Labour.”
And in Gloucester where we hold 10 council seats out of 39 I can take you to wards where you will ask “why isn’t this Labour?” Gloucester is a bell weather seat, always electing an MP of the same party as the party of government. Labour 97-2010. A 9% swing to Labour in 2017 was not enough to oust Richard Graham. Over 90% of the electorate voted for the two main parties – all the votes that minority parties won would not have carried us across the line. So next time what is it we need to do? We need to convince some of those Tory voters that it is safe to switch to Labour.
And in 2017 we didn’t convince enough of them.
That election saw an increased polarisation of the electorate. Labour London and the big cities saw huge surges in our vote but this was only a few weeks after County Council elections in which we performed terribly. In Gloucestershire we went from a group of 9 to 5 and three of the seats lost were in the City. In local politics, in England outside the Cities, in the Shires, we failed to win control of any council. A whole tier of local government where Labour has no voice.
Last year I was not fighting an election in Gloucester, so I and my fellow councillor, Tom Coole, went to campaign in every type of authority across England. From Plymouth to Newcastle. London boroughs, big Mets, Unitaries, districts and towns. Places where we won and places we lost.
And what we found was no surprise. In London, good results in places we already controlled and large amounts of activism and enthusiasm. In Plymouth which we gained by taking four seats in a hard-fought campaign and after a woeful Blukip interregnum. In Newcastle on Tyne we gained one seat and increased our vote share. Well organised and well-resourced local campaigns focused on local issues.
We went to Swindon – our second target authority in the SW. A place where the Tories had just closed all the children’s centres but we gained only one seat and failed to take control, despite significant national input including five visits from Jeremy Corbyn and an Owen Jones ‘unseat’ campaign.
On election day we went to a borough council election in Kidsgrove, part of Newcastle under Lyme, a small town in an area with a Labour MP, and where we need labour councillors. A council where we could have taken control. And as we knocked on doors what made the difference? Hardworking local activists did well, but, as in the county elections the year before, there was no rising tide of national support to lift our result. In this traditional Labour area where before the election we had been the largest party there was no enthusiasm for our national message.
We did talk about England in that campaign. And austerity. But our campaign was pitched at issues which were more pertinent to Unitaries and not the hyper local issues that all local councils deal with. Whilst adult care, youth services and housing are all massive issues it is the conversation about the neighbourhood and the town that speaks to most voters. Litter, grass cutting, dog mess. Pride about place.
And this failure to make ground is troubling. Councillors and local activists are the building blocks of the next Labour Government. If we fail to make ground in Gloucester and Swindon or fall back in Newcastle-under-Lyme then we may never make it across the line. We haven’t had a majority in England since 2005.
But however much local councillors, candidates and activists are tuned in to local issues, taking up casework, lobbying for residents, that can be overwhelmed by national messaging. We need these voters to feel safe about switching from conservative to labour. That the things they value are not at risk. In my ward they threw the dice for Brexit because they don’t see change for the better. By taking back control at least they felt they might be heard. But still – despite the horrific mess in Westminster – we are not listening to them. Those women I spoke to the day after the referendum, what would they say today?