As is becoming traditional at the Labour: Coast & Country virtual conference, the 2021 conference opened with a view from the coast and from the country. This year the views came from myself – Cllr Dr Pam Buchan, Plymouth City Councillor, marine social scientist and LCC Director; Cllr Tina Bhartwas, Hertfordshire County Council; and Cllr Pat Osborne, Blandford Forum Town Council and Labour: Coast & Country.
Our views this year were influenced by local elections in May, and 18 months of lockdowns, restrictions, and the immense challenges brought to us all by the COVID19 pandemic. Though many commentators are beginning to talk about ‘life after COVID’, many rural and coastal communities and very much still living with COVID. Cllr Pat Osborne highlighted that in Dorset there are still considerable impacts on the physical and mental health of local people, on children, and particularly on families struggling with food poverty. Whilst some small businesses have been lost, and others continue to struggle with staffing, yet others have successfully adapted through local delivery models. Trust in local government has grown through the support offered throughout the pandemic, and Councillors are being judged on what they did or didn’t do.
Recognising the opportunities for Councillors who are locally active, Cllr Tina Bhartwas, shared her election experiences from Hertfordshire. Here a hyper-local campaign was run focusing on key local issues: underfunding of education and low educational attainment; rural poverty leading to health issues; poor public transport; soaring rents and housing shortages; and engaging young people on climate change issues. The campaign mobilised members and engaged with digital campaigning. This was a great recipe for success and the Conservatives faced losses.
In Plymouth, Labour lost our majority and a minority Conservative administration was established. Alongside the difficult logistics of no long campaign on the doorstep because of COVID restrictions, there were a number of key issues that compounded to influence this outcome. First, the national party didn’t speak for us or to us. We were a target campaign and had Keir and front benchers visiting almost daily in the short campaign, but it didn’t resonate on the Plymouth doorsteps. The national campaign was focused on the NHS, but the NHS was also being talked about by the Conservatives so it felt like the discussion was on their terms. But more importantly, it was a national issue being used for a local campaign.
When elected as leader Keir talked a lot about re-engaging with local government and local councillors. Listening to us, empowering us, and recognising the role we play at the coal face of politics. Yet when it came to this crucial, super-year of local elections, the narrative didn’t consider local government at all and this affected all local elections this year.
Secondly, there were hyper-local issues too. Every seat with a sitting Councillor in the Plymouth Moor View constituency was lost to the Conservatives. People in the North of the city, who are marginalised by deprivation and poor public transport connections, felt they weren’t benefiting from the economic development taking place in the city centre and waterfront. The message resonates for the wider Labour Party: we need to do better at understanding how different communities live and what their needs are. We need to do better at getting basic infrastructure and connectivity sorted out, and ensure that economic benefits are being shared. That way voters will feel our policies are for them.
Thirdly, we didn’t sufficiently engage people in how we were managing their places. Rural and coastal people have strong local identities which are tied to the local places where they live and work. They should be involved in shaping them and excluding them risks imposing management practices which conflict with local needs. The Labour Party needs strong, place-based policies that recognise the importance of natural, green and blue spaces, and the ties between communities and place.
There is clearly much more work to do to recognise that devolution has to start within the party. There needs to not only be listening to rural and coastal communities, but also messaging and campaigns that recognise not only the important role of local councils, but which also provide a compelling narrative about the impacts of a Conservative government on the ability of councils to deliver services. Councillors and candidates need support to be present locally, and local issues need to be the bed-rock for campaigns and policies. In the Labour Party we should want and trust all citizens to participate in democracy, and the emotional connections we have with place can be a tool for promoting that citizenship. A Labour Party which roots policies in the places that shape our identity is a Party which will inspire activism. And feet on the ground, knocking doors, and being visible, is what we know wins elections for Labour, getting us the votes we need to create real change. So we should be developing policy positions which capitalise on connection to place to promote civic participation to both improve lives, improve our democracy, and respond to today’s challenges