Local Elections 2023: Miles and miles, across a complicated ‘landscape’

John Clark

I’d been active in the Labour Party in London since 1967 and then in Suffolk since the first Lockdown in 2020. I moved my virtual self to Suffolk and started going to Leiston Branch meetings later that year.

I think there are issues around both Councils in larger rural / low density areas and how the Labour Party machine supports us. This note is to promote discussion with some suggestions. I make no claim for novelty.

Councils in rural areas

The District Council (DC) covers an enormously long area – it can take 1.25 hours each way to get from Felixstowe to Lowestoft (where DC meetings are held) . The train takes over 2 hours each way and the last one is at about 9 pm.

(I had been used in London to branch meetings being 5 minutes’ walk away and general meetings being 20 minutes’ walk. The Town Hall was 5 minutes away in Newham… Leafletting and canvassing were easy in terraces with short front gardens.)

The DC has a limited range of services (refuse for instance) while the County Council (CC), for instance, does education, highways (aka potholes), social services etc..

In our village, the Parish Council (PC) cuts the grass on the village green, looks after the cemetery and helps fund the community centre and allotments. We were all elected unopposed to the PC. In the towns, the Town Councils (same thing but bigger) have a bigger role but have no connection with the PCs in neighbouring villages.

All this feels not only confusing but quite antediluvian. Zooming may not work for some people but most of us got used to it during the Pandemic. I’d guess that the vast majority now have email and/or Whatsapp. AI should make it much easier to consult with open text answers. There may be broadband deserts in Suffolk but these don’t seem to affect anyone I have met.

Change seems to happen a lot in Local Government and existing elected members may well feel threatened by fundamental alterations.

Research is needed to see whether my comments on Suffolk apply elsewhere, especially in rural areas, and whether similar changes might work in urban areas.


  • Using modern IT could make it easier to participate in running a Council
  • DCs don’t feel at all local so the CC could do some of its County wide work.
  • Town Councils and Parish Councils could merge / collaborate to deliver more local services
  • More use of surveys to prioritise Council work

The Labour Party

I was immediately struck by the distance to meetings (30 minutes each way by car) and the complexity of local government – the County, the District and the Town / Parish Councils seemed to have quite different boundaries – and it was not immediately clear which was responsible for what!

Sizewell C (or not) and Dr Sewage seemed to dominate our Branch thinking and discussions. Tories seemed to win outside our CLP towns of Felixstowe and Lowestoft, and the Greens in the smaller towns such as Halesworth and Beccles.

Although we’d put up paper candidates over the years, we now felt that the Branch should enter the elections with the intention of making sure local people knew that the Labour Party was around.

There was no Local Government Committee. This meant there were no processes for creating a manifesto or for creating a panel from which candidates could be drawn. In the end Leiston Branch agreed to adopt 4 local members for 5 of the vacancies and we got out two leaflets to perhaps 80% of the electorate, and ran street stalls on the four Saturdays of the short campaign.

The Labour Party website offered little for us in scattered rural areas. Leafleting was easy in villages and towns, but hard work to the very large number of isolated homes and tiny hamlets.

None of us four won. The Lib Dems and the Greens did well and have formed a coalition with an independent to run East Suffolk DC. The Tories almost disappeared. Straight Labour/Tory fights are much less prevalent now.


  • Ensure that there is a Local Government Committee covering each area well ahead of scheduled local elections
  • The Labour Party needs to recognise the issues in organising and campaigning in low density / rural areas
  • Campaigning for a free postal distribution at Council elections, at least in rural areas
  • Allow local Labour to decide whether to collaborate either before or after an election to maximise the chances of being at least part of an administration

3 responses to “Local Elections 2023: Miles and miles, across a complicated ‘landscape’”

  1. Bringing back zoom meetings would help where areas are large and would encourage parents with young children to participate – particularly in parish councils where there aren’t childcare allowances.

  2. Linda Edwards-Shea Avatar
    Linda Edwards-Shea

    Our experience in Sleaford and North Hykeham CLP in rural Lincolnshire matches John Clark’s in rural and coastal Suffolk. We have 3 tiers of local government: parish/town, district and county. The district is 400 square miles and public transport is virtually non-existent, so meeting via Zoom has been invaluable. I am increasingly frustrated by Labour’s inability to listen to rural activists and am very grateful to Hywel Lloyd and Labour Coast and Country. On a brighter note, I and a fellow CLP member were successful in the 4th May elections and are now District Councillors on North Kesteven District Council — our first Labour victories at district level since 2003.

  3. Hello John and welcome to Suffolk! Good to read your observations as someone who has now experienced being active in the party in both urban and rural areas. I absolutely agree with your description of the issues! I’m over the other side of the county, in South Suffolk. We experience the same problems of lack of interest – never mind support – from the party nationally and regionally, and the same issues of lack of rural transport and long distances, though are thankful to have a few members in the furthest reach of our district prepared to drive an hour to Sudbury to help us campaign in our main area of focus. In terms of the national party, I’d go a step further and complain about the national messaging for the May elections, which focused only on things about which district and town/parish councils cannot impact. Combined with a lack of detail on housing and environmental intentions – where we should have some really significant and identifiably Labour policies – that means us having to campaign on entirely local matters; that in turn can lead to negative spats with other left-of centre parties, when we all share an interest in defeating the Tories who have run many of our councils for decades! As you say, multiple layers of local government are confusing for all of us, and don’t help. There has been a proposal for Unitary authorities in Suffolk before (Ipswich and a doughnut around it if memory serves) but that was of course proposed by Tories, so – in my view – got caught up in politics, rather than the potential benefits of having housing, education and social care under one political roof. All of which makes it important for us to come together as rural Labour members in the district authorities here, especially now things have become more complicated with the success of the Greens (of whom expectations are now high in many parts of the county!) Would you be up for getting our rural CLPs together over the summer perhaps?

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