The depth of the general election loss doesn’t get any easier to accept the further we get from the result. But there have been glimmers of light for Labour across the country. Any renewal of the Party has to use the experience of Labour in power locally, to rebuild from.
So, during this period of soul-searching and reflection, it may be timely to remind ourselves of the lessons we learned in Barking & Dagenham (B&D) 10 years ago when our red wall started to crumble. This led to our own journey of reconnecting with traditional Labour voters and reaching out to others.
B&D was one of the few London Boroughs to vote Leave in 2016. Despite this, three years later our red wall is still standing. We have seen off Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party, and last Thursday (by the narrowest of margins) the Conservatives in Dagenham & Rainham – this despite a huge 70% Leave vote in the seat. Why?
Let’s go back. The election of nearly a dozen BNP councillors here in B&D in 2006 is like a mirror image of what happened in the Brexit referendum a decade on. People here do not have an innate dislike of distant European bureaucrats, but they did and do have a feeling of being left behind.
It was our fault the BNP got a foothold in B&D. It was important we accepted this. We reflected, dug deep, and took to the streets. For us it was time to really listen and learn. We went door to door. It was community, community, community.
We reconnected Labour by tackling every day and, at times, menial issues people raised with us (like the state of their street and parking). They did not take us seriously until they were confident we took them seriously. We only moved on to what we thought was important – the politics of equality – after gaining their confidence. It’s an approach which has held us in good stead.
People in B&D may not be billionaires, and many do not wish to be, but they have dreams just like everybody else. They want their kids to get on and have a place they can call home. They are aspirational and so we should be for them.
These days we take every opportunity to attract inward investment, whether it’s turning the former Civic Centre into a university, attracting the three markets of London (Billingsgate, Smithfield & New Spitalfields), or persuading big employers to locate their business here. And we champion the borough, whether it’s saving the local A&E or keeping the police station open. It’s all about the them, not us.
We haven’t got it all our own way. It’s a huge challenge to try to transform a place left behind by de-industrialisation, austerity, and an ever-changing population. It’s no coincidence we have the cheapest housing in the Capital.
It’s made worse when we have lost two-thirds of our funding over the last decade and don’t have anywhere near the local powers we need. And it doesn’t help either that too often our councillors have been caught in the cross-fire and wrangling of factional Labour fights.
I’m not in any camp, wing or slate, because I know at the end of the day, we all need to champion the communities we represent or wish to represent. Even more we have to serve these people and places. That is how you get elected and stay elected.
But in all the hard graft of reconnecting and rebuilding trust – the biggest thing we have learnt is to trust our community and listen to their voice. We know we can’t unlock their potential or build a good society without them.
If I’m honest, two things really got to me during the campaign and over the last few years. Firstly, we did not talk about the huge well of aspiration that exists in our heartlands from B&D to Wigan, Plymouth and Preston. People want a hand up, not a hand out but it did not come across like this. Local communities we seek to serve are already cooperating, collaborating and seeking opportunities to lead better lives. They just need our help to do this.
The second thing we missed is to champion how council leaders and mayors are delivering, are on the side of the communities they represent, and are real examples of what Labour does in power. From Georgia Gould in Camden to Tudor Evans in Plymouth, Matthew Brown in Preston, and Nick Forbes in Newcastle, and far beyond.
The Parliamentary Labour Party is now shrunk. Johnson will be strident. Local Labour authorities will continue to be a dented shield, there to try to protect people. But councils must also be the spearhead of a new politics which reinvents Labour – as the party that encourages a more inclusive vision for our communities.
This is how Labour was founded at the end of the 19th century when we put into political action the needs of the emerging unions, coops and mutuals. We live in a new collaborative moment, accelerated by social media. We must now forge the politics of collaboration. We have started that journey in B&D. Others are doing it around the country in their own way. We need only reconnect.
The election result showed a country in flux. We can work with that – B&D is always in flux and we’ve shown Labour can win on such fluid terrain against all the odds. But only when we trust the people.
Darren Rodwell is leader of Barking and Dagenham Council