The local elections are fast approaching across the UK and Plymouth City Council is one of two key targets for Labour outside of London. Only two seats are required to take control back from the Conservatives in this historic coastal city. Since its formation as a unitary authority in 1998, control has swung between Labour and Conservative leading it to be viewed as a bellwether council. Consideration of its coastal culture and location nestled between sea and rural Devon and Cornwall, might shed some insight as to why Labour has not managed to hold on to Plymouth, a city whose population would elsewhere be considered natural Labour.
A recent roundtable with Sue Hayman, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, saw Labour councillors, educational, research, environmental, and business representatives, come together to discuss the economic and policy challenges in a coastal city. One of Plymouth’s key difficulties is lack of adequate transport infrastructure to the rest of the UK which is frequently cited as a barrier to companies moving in. Similarly, graduates see it as a mark of success when they move away from the city for work. This produces a chicken and egg situation of insufficient human resources and infrastructure deterring companies, then a lack of opportunities for residents and graduates leading to low-pay employment and net migration of skilled employees. Without a substantial injection of investment – and coastal cities fare badly with the funding formulas used by government – the stalemate can only be cracked with innovative approaches such as co-operatives, startup hubs, and community enterprise. But this can only be successful if it brings the community with it and complements the values of the city.
The traditional conservatism of the rural surrounds of this city, combined with a strong naval and maritime cultural and economic history, has not been well understood by the national Labour Party. Recent research by the Fabians uncovered a prevailing perception of Labour as an urban party that views rural and isolated communities as simple-minded and does not value or understand our challenges. In Plymouth, Labour faces a constant challenge to not be viewed as “anti-defence”, creating a conflict of values for those who value independence of individual and nation, but for whom neo-liberal conservatism and austerity has only done harm. It could be argued that this found an outward expression in one of the highest Brexit votes in the country.
Standing in a ward such as Honicknowle, where deprivation is high and there are residents who have never seen the sea, it’s clear that a Labour council is urgently needed to provide innovative approaches to creation of opportunities and improvement of wellbeing. To make a substantial and lasting difference we need to not only take the council in 2018 but to hold it for years to come.
Pamela Buchan | @Asterinidae