Monday, 2 April 2012

West Bradford – The View From Aycliffe

Whilst I think that the Labour Party has lots to learn (and fear) from the West Bradford defeat, I am much less prepared to moralise about the defeat to the local Labour Party activists who fought the election.

Reading the post-mortems on Labour’s Bradford defeat left me with a terrible feeling of déjà vu – because much the same happened to us in 2007.

The Background
In 2007, Great Aycliffe Town Council was Labour-controlled, and for the past four years there had been no opposition councillors at all – all 30 town councillors were all Labour. We ran a frugal, innovative and popular council, with award-winning environmental projects.
Meanwhile, Sedgefield Borough Council was Labour-controlled, and for the past four years had been dominated by Aycliffe Councillors. It was completely renovating its 7,000+ Council houses in the town, had set up a revolutionary system of local grant-funding, and was proposing a £1m recreational and environmental scheme which would have renewed the poorest ward in the town.

A big negative was the town centre. Newton Aycliffe town centre had been sold off under the Thatcher government and resold a number of times; it was under private ownership and in a state of terminal decline. Deeply culpable were the PCT (which owned a rotting eyesore of a health centre) and the County Council (which had overseen a disastrous, stuttering redevelopment).
It was not that the town and borough councils had not tried to get something done about the town centre. Everyone up to and including the Prime Minister had been brought to Aycliffe, and we could cite a list as long as your arm of promises that something would be done.
But every promise had failed, and for more than a decade the town centre had steadily declined, surrounded by derelict land and collapsing buildings.

Nevertheless, none of it was owned by the town council, and we were sure that people would understand that – consequently – we were as powerless as they to do anything but get angry.

The Campaign
And so we held the election.

I was confident we would win. Our election pamphlet had an A4-side of genuinely successful initiatives, and an A4 side of projects we intended to do when Labour was re-elected.

We were faced by a group of independents, led by two former-Labour Councillors. Their manifesto was a scrappy, shoddy black-and-white sheet of A4 with 13 ludicrous promises.

The chief was a promise to cut Council Tax by 50%. It was not clear whether this was just the Town Council element of the tax, or the Council Tax altogether. Challenges in the local press for them to say HOW they intended to do this impossible task were met simply by a deluge of personal abuse.

Other promises were similarly ridiculous. The independents promised to improve bus services, to improve the local schools, to stop anti-social behaviour ... for an election for a parish council!!! There was no explanation of HOW they might achieve these objectives, just an endlessly-repeated mantra of how the ‘corrupt and inefficient’ Labour councillors needed to give way to a ‘new broom’.
Twice I caught the leader of the independents telling a blatant, provable lie … but when I wrote into the local paper to reveal it, I was denounced as a typical Labour Party ‘bully’.

We worked hard. I know this because one of the candidates was my wife, and she knocked every door in her ward; the messages were not wholly positive on the doorstep, but nothing to cause despair. I even believed we had ‘won’ the battle in the local press since – although the independents were vicious in their abuse – they had failed to answer a single point we had made.

So I went into the election really believing that we would win.
I really thought that the electors would see through the opposition’s hyperbole, vitriol and lies.

The Result
I could not have been more wrong. I had reckoned without the reaction of an electorate desperate to believe the lie.

We were annihilated. Labour lost half its Town Council seats and most of its Borough Council seats. Moreover, the electors had not voted wildly or stupidly – they had targeted the Labour leadership. Both the leader of the Town Council and the leader of the Borough Council lost their seats.
The only reason I survived was because the independents could only find one person to stand for the Town Council in my ward; though an outsider and completely unknown in the ward, she came top of the poll.

The Moratorium
The general feeling in the wider Labour Party was that we had ‘failed’ – the setback was ascribed to a ‘weak’ local party, at war with itself. I disputed, and still do dispute, this – only in 2003 we had driven the opposition from the field altogether.

No. Looking back with the benefit of five years’ hindsight, I am of the opinion that we had simply been engulfed – much as the activists in Bradford West – by an unstoppable surge of public opinion which was so disillusioned and desperate that it was prepared to endorse the alternative, however ill-presented and impossible.

I know that the last thing we are allowed to do is to criticise the voters – that is perceived as electoral suicide. Nowadays we have to ‘apologise’, and to assure people that we are going to ‘learn the lessons’ of our defeat.

But, ultimately, it was the voters’ decision, and as such I regard it as their responsibility.
They CHOSE to believe the lies.
They chose to believe that there was a quick-fix easy solution.
They blamed us for the town centre, chose to ignore our successful record and costed manifesto, and instead put their faith in an absolutely unachievable list of wild claims and promises.
And I do not think that anything we could have said or done would have changed the result.

So I feel sorry for the Bradford Labour Party. Galloway will never and can never make good on the hopes of the people of Bradford – that he will halt the industrial decline, that he will take our troops out of Afghanistan, that he will progress the Westfield shopping centre. Even if these things happen, he won’t have achieved them, because they are beyond his power to achieve.
And in the meantime, they are going to have to live with the censure of biraderi-ism and allegations that they lost contact with their community – and they won’t have a leg to stand on because, after all, they lost the election.

Picking up the Pieces
The next local elections are not till 2013, so I cannot tell you how successful we have been in Aycliffe in picking up the pieces.

There were three significant changes we introduced.

Firstly, we try never to mention any names in the press. When we challenge the opposition, we do so only in impersonal, objective terms. Whether this will lose us our reputation as ‘nasty’ remains to be seen and – seeing as the independents continue to make the most horrible personal attacks on us – there is an argument that it might even be counter-productive. But we have decided that the electorate here has grown squeamish with aggressive political debate, and we try not to ‘raise our voice’ too loudly.

Secondly, I have started writing a column in our local newspaper giving people a blow-by-blow account of the town council meetings. A Councillor friend often criticises what he calls ‘pub politics’ – the sort of opinionated politics which sits round a pint and comes up with ‘easy’, ‘obvious’ solutions (‘I’ll tell you what they ought to do…’) which are simply legally, financially and practically impossible … and which rely on the assumption that existing councillors are idiots who hadn’t thought of their brilliant idea.
Maybe if we inform people better about the realities of the town council’s work, voters might not fall prey so easily next time to a set of silly promises and outrageous lies? Well, that’s the theory anyway.

Thirdly, I am standing up much more prominently for town issues, even where that brings me into conflict with the Labour-led County Council or the wider Labour Party. This has brought me in for a fair amount of criticism, but I think the monolithic parties at every level are going to have to allow the ‘local member’ to shout about local injustices. I fear that Party leaders do not fully appreciate the level of betrayal that local voters feel when their elected representative swans off to County Hall or Parliament and promptly ‘toes the party line’ on a matter which hurts the local community.

Beyond that, it has just been ‘good local politics’ – keeping in touch with the local community, and trying to run a good, consultative, responsive Council. We have an excellent MP and, at his suggestion, have re-started voter-ID. We have developed and spearheaded the idea of the ‘debating branch’.
We are stuck with a town centre which remains an electoral-disaster-waiting-to-happen but, again, our MP has moved mountains trying to get something moving.
We have won every by-election since 2007, and continue to hope for 2013.

And do I have anything to say to the Labour activists of Bradford?

If I were outspoken enough to comment, it would probably be something along these lines:
These things happen.
The public fell prey to a propagandist who pushed the right buttons – there was probably nothing you could have done.
Don’t beat yourself up, and listen only selectively to the ‘told-you-soes’ who blame you – you are not to blame.

Pick yourself up, hold a few straight-talking wash-ups and re-think your strategy as necessary.

Carry on; it’s not the end of the world.

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