"The sorts of areas that a party has to win": Britain's spatial contradictions and the 2018 local elections

In the wake of the local election results, how should strategies for local government sit in Britain's geography?

To watch the BBC’s coverage of the local election results was to be berated by Laura Kuenssberg about “the sorts of areas that a party has to win” – emphasising less the undoubted need to pick up marginal seats, and more a set of places which have obtained immense symbolic significance for commentators of a certain generation.

Geographic fixations are nothing new in the history of the Labour Party. Clare Griffiths’ masterful Labour and the Countryside outlines an earlier obsession with winning the votes of rural areas. Looking at maps of Britain, Labour’s interwar campaign organisers were “impressed by the physical extent of what it saw as rural Britain” – even at a time when the number of voters in rural areas (let alone the number of people involved in agriculture!) was falling. As Griffiths detailed, Labour’s obsession was driven by insecurity over its ‘urban’ base – the desire to find a place within a national identity which was marked by the ruralism of Stanley Baldwin. A glance at the map of the general election in 1945 shows that Labour never really made the inroads into rural areas which it hoped for – but it doesn’t seem to have done them too much harm.

After the war, Britain’s national identity started to change, and Labour’s geographic fixations changed with it. As the country (or at least parts thereof) underwent ‘suburbanisation’, the political significance attached to the suburbs grew out of proportion with their electoral importance – and the idea of a homogenised suburbia was born. From the ‘Selsdon Man’ that defeated Wilson in 1970 to the Mondeo-driving ‘Basildon Man’ that supposedly turned out for Blair, the “invincible green suburbs” praised by John Major came to represent Britain (or, more precisely, England) – and, hence, the most important places in the country for Labour to win.

In the time during the 1990s, however, the symbolic importance of ‘suburbia’ has started to fade – perhaps because it’s coded as petit-bourgeois at a time when the Right is pivoting towards the ‘white working class’, perhaps because suburbia is gendered as feminine at a time when commentators are more worried about the votes of men. The shift in emphasis towards ‘towns’, whose supposed interests are trumpeted above all by Lisa Nandy, is revealing. In some cases, the actual places under discussion are the same – Basildon can figure as a suburb or a town in the same way that Surrey was in turn regarded as rural or suburban – but there is also a manoeuvre away from the South East towards Lancashire and the Midlands. Nandy reels off her list like an invocation: Bolton, Dudley, Nuneaton, Wigan. These are “the towns where the next General Election will be won or lost”.

These fixations share many of the same problems. The countryside was not as electorally significant as Labour worried – and in viewing it as more important than it was, Labour strengthened a national identity which ultimately threatened it. By generalising about the needs of the suburbs, Labour ignored the ways in which they were different – and set course for its current problems in areas that didn’t suit the stencil.

Although any attempt to think through Britain’s spatial contradictions is welcome, the Centre for Towns (launched in 2017, and co-led by Lisa Nandy) runs into these same problems at breakneck speed. A cursory look at the think-tank’s lists will reveal the tremendous variety in the places they are talking about – it’s hard to imagine that much good can be done by discussing Brighton, Bradford, Southend-on-Sea and Warrington as if their needs are the same.

Nor, from the Centre’s data, is it apparent that Labour has much of a problem in most of these ‘towns’. Of the 30 towns they identify as the country’s largest, 19 held local elections on Thursday. Of those, two were Labour gains (Plymouth and Kirklees) and one was a loss (Derby). Labour gained councillors in eleven of them and lost them in seven – remaining level in Southampton. And where Labour did badly, it seems churlish to complain too hastily. It’s unlikely that any of Hull’s three Labour MPs will be threatened in the next general election; in Reading, where Labour lost one councillor, the party would still hope to replicate its strong performance in 2017. Last year’s general election also showed Labour doing well in many towns – including, for example, in Canterbury. Lewis Bassett wrote a useful piece last year about Labour’s campaign in Derby North, which elected Chris Williamson.

What should be clear is that the pivot towards ‘towns’ has very little to do with analytical sharpness – it’s about finding a stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn with, and to cast aspersions about what he represents. That’s why the Centre for Towns is unequivocal about severing London’s towns from its research, as if there isn’t quite a lot that Croydon or Dagenham might hold in common with Salford or South Shields. That’s why the Centre for Towns isn’t talking about Brighton or Norwich or Oxford or Portsmouth. They – mistakenly, given the demographics of most towns – think they’ve found a way of saying ‘white working class’ without having to vocalise the first syllable. They’re trying to talk about depressed post-industrial areas without really talking about them, trying to attach a greater importance to them by lumping them in with towns-in-general. By this generalisation, they hope to obtain an expert position that they haven’t earned – as if knowing Wigan is enough to know every other ‘town’ in Lancashire and beyond.

This generalisation rubs up curiously against the other fascination of the Labour establishment ‘soft left’ – the narrow expertise of councillors, the sacred particularity of the local. Seemingly contradictory, this interplay flatters them with an intimate local knowledge and then – almost in the same breath – gives that knowledge a significance which can take them beyond the bounds of place. This, in Joe Kennedy’s words, is “a specious particularism which often fails to be properly particular”; “all of these supposedly unique places are turned into a grey mulch of so-called particularity in which all distinguishing features disappear.”

These assumptions animate the Local Government Association Labour Group’s On Day One, a welcome attempt to explore the relationship between councils and a future Labour government. Unfortunately, most of the report’s recommendations are unambitious and weak – suggestions made as if the next Labour government will be much the same as the current Conservative one, albeit with a few sources of funding restored.

The report is seriously hampered by its failure to consider the obstacles that will come from local government itself – none of the essays are by members of minority Labour Groups, and there is no attempt to discuss the future of non-metropolitan county councils almost wholly controlled by the Conservatives. Kent County Council, after all, clung onto its own version of the homophobic Section 28 for four years after it was abolished nationally by Blair. A Labour government under Corbyn is likely to have to overcome barriers placed in its path by Labour-controlled councils as well. Nick Forbes’ approving reference to their “experience of squeezing extra value out of scarce resources” is not wholly ridiculous, but we are all aware of the form which this has taken in some authorities – cosying up to developers with motivations other than ‘extra value’ for residents. Many of Labour’s councillors are experts in a specifically capitalist efficiency – not the meeting of needs, but the counting of pennies. These failings serve to undermine Forbes’ claim that “the fastest and most direct route to achieving it [change for the many, not the few] lies through local government”.

Ultimately, On Day One’s overriding purpose is to try and strengthen the position of Labour’s councillors (and especially council leaders) – one of the last bastions of the party’s right-wing. It’s revealing how detached and pleading the report’s references to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are; the LGA Labour Group is desperate for scraps from a leadership to which it is basically hostile. This is most clear in the article by Simon Henig, Leader of Durham County Council, which argues for representation on the NEC to be doubled – and for a “senior local government figure” to sit with the Cabinet. But given Britain’s increasing spatial disparities, what good could this possibly do? How can a single person represent local government in general? And surely this would serve to entrench Labour’s thinking further in the areas where it’s already doing well – where it’s already elected strong councils?

That’s not to say that local knowledge isn’t important, and Andrew Gwynne was right to argue in the report’s preface that “the future of our country cannot be formulated by politicians in Westminster, but needs to be built in partnership with local leaders and local people”. But the collection relies instead on Forbes’ argument that each council leader is “an expert on their local area” – narrowing expertise to a single individual, or a small group of individuals, rather than thinking about how collectively generated local expertise can be institutionalised and empowered. Amy Cross’ piece reminds us of the amount of money which councillors donate to the Labour Party, but a large part of that comes from councillor allowances which would not exist without the hard work of Labour members to get them elected. The finances of Labour Groups – typically the wealthiest section of a local party – are kept apart and restricted to traditionally electoral expenditures, with councillors holding the purse-strings; these funds could transform the capacity of CLPs (and revitalised Local Campaign Forums) to build power in their communities. That could form the basis for growing participation in local politics and support ‘local leaders’ that aren’t councillors – and challenge the power of Labour politicians that seem as likely to lose us votes as to win them.

The wavering of the Labour establishment between the particularity of local expertise and its generalisability finds a parallel in a wider conversation about Britain’s spatial disparities. In 1987, the sociologist Mike Savage set out to try to make sense of a seeming contradiction.

On the one hand, ‘locality’ was supposedly playing an ever-greater role in political alignment – more and more, you could figure out someone’s politics just by knowing where they were from. On the other hand, politics was widely regarded as firmly nationalised – people were voting for party not politicians – and the distinctiveness of local areas was in decline. Whereas in the past there were major cities with rather different politics – the historic dominance of Toryism in Liverpool, Liberalism in Glasgow and Birmingham – increasingly Labour had come to win in most of them, whilst the Conservative Party relied increasingly upon the suburbs, commuter belt and rural England.

Savage argued the collapse of local distinctiveness and concurrent growth in local variation could be explained with reference to what he called ‘clusters’. Individual local areas could be grouped with other similar areas – urban inner-cities, dormitory suburbs, new towns, coalfields, and so on – which could be used to predict how people would vote. The complexity of these clusters, contrasted with the dull generalisation of the Centre for Towns, points to a better way of responding politically and theoretically to Britain’s spatial contradictions.

Politics, for Savage, is increasingly ‘national’ in the sense that rules can be drawn up which apply right across the whole country – without a deep understanding of the history or religious demographics of any specific area – but still ‘local’ because people’s politics are formed by where they live. Savage argued that “We should abandon the idea that class ‘interests’ are nationally rather than locally based” – not because local areas are distinctive but because they are varied.

A key example for Savage was the varying significance of house prices and home ownership. Working class owner-occupiers in suburban areas, where house prices were then rising the most, had a motivation to vote Conservative – the prospect of benefiting from capital gains. In (post-)industrial areas, on the other hand, owner-occupiers (and not just tenants) might have a greater incentive to vote Labour – house prices wouldn’t rise without substantial state investment in public services and infrastructure, a coalition of local interests which could easily evolve into Labour support for redevelopment and gentrification confronting Tory NIMBYism.

Alongside James Barlow, Savage had provided a useful example of this approach in the previous year – a discussion of politics in 1980s Berkshire. This article also pointed to another tension: “most people are increasingly locked into their ‘locality’, wherever they live, but alongside these are a small number of high-flying, affluent, professional workers, who exhibit high levels of job and residential mobility”. Whilst some of the details have changed – precarity replacing affluence, a mobility of insecurity rather than choices – the division between those ‘locked into’ locality and those ‘locked out’ has only grown. It is the latter, more mobile – though no longer high-flying – group which seems to form the basis of Labour’s emerging class coalition.

Savage’s interest was primarily in explaining political alignment, but these tensions have a wider resonance. Problems – whether the result of austerity, deindustrialisation or housing crises – can only be understood with reference to the locality in which they occur and will not be solved with just a series of commands issued from Whitehall. At the same time, Labour’s growth in membership has resided precisely in those who are least tied to a specific locality, and who have therefore been starved of the necessary local knowledge to come up with detailed local programmes or find candidates with weighty local reputations – a phenomenon which I suspect fed into Labour’s poor results in Derby. There is a strange irony in the fact that Blairism – once known for ‘parachuting in’ its candidates from the metropolis – is now seeking refuge in local government, relying on banks of older supporters who are more likely to own their homes and stay in areas for longer.

But all is not lost. As Savage demonstrated, the importance of locality does not mean that we must wallow in its difference. If areas were distinctive rather than varied, our task would be much greater. We don’t have to navigate complicated sectarian divides to understand a local political situation and working in a call centre in Leeds shares many similarities with working in a call centre in Reading. We can start to grapple the local but on a national basis – moving beyond parochial political circles to share our understanding with those in like situations – and provide multiple routes to engagement for those ‘locked into’ and ‘locked out’ of locality.

This sort of thinking would allow Labour to tackle the single biggest hurdle to victory in local government that it faces – the sheer extent of people’s disengagement. Turnout is always a problem in local elections, and 2018 wasn’t even the worst; in Kensington and Chelsea, where turnout was notably higher, it was still only 39.7%. Hull’s was only 25%.

Partly this is connected to the people ‘locked out’ of locality. Whilst many people who answer doors to canvassers are seemingly most concerned about intensely local issues – bin collections, street cleaning, pot-holes – there are always people for whom this is ridiculous, because they only come home to sleep and possibly eat. That’s especially the case for younger people, whose turnout was important last year but who more often stay at home for the locals.

But even those ‘locked into’ locality would have struggled to get excited about Labour’s offering in local government – and even that’s a bit generous. Labour desperately needs a radical agenda for its councils, in keeping with (and moving beyond) the manifesto which caused such excitement in 2017. And, crucially, we need to think seriously about changing the workings and functions of local government – because apathy in council elections is structural and intended.

One of Mike Savage’s most famous works is The Dynamics of Working Class Politics – a book about the labour movement in Preston in the latter nineteenth-century. Preston, of course, has been taken up as one of the major examples of what a nascent Corbynism-in-local-government might look like. In what follows, I will outline the planks of a local programme for Corbynism – because ‘Municipal Corbynism’ just isn’t ambitious enough.

Such a programme has to begin with rigorous study – with an attempt to come to terms with Britain’s spatial contradictions, to come to a concrete understanding of our concrete localities. Trying to understand our local areas can be daunting, especially when we move around a lot – but Savage’s work shows that we don’t have to obsess over particularity. Momentum could support the gathering and formalisation of the local knowledge which we really need – producing guidelines for activists to use to understand their local areas. Momentum HQ can’t create a guidebook to the problems and politics of every town in the country, but they can offer the resources and techniques necessary for local activists to do so. This would make it easier to roll out appropriate policies in different areas and strengthen our activists against the privileged expertise of the few. Momentum – or Labour itself – could organise conferences bringing together activists from different ‘clusters’, producing research both more precise and more open than that of the Centre for Towns.

Secondly, we need a better appreciation of the challenges which Labour faces in many parts of the country. Although it hasn’t been uniform, UKIP’s collapse is a gift to the Tories – a flailing far-right party donating its support to their establishment bedfellows. Labour can win many of those voters over, but it will take time to break up the hegemony of the Right. There are areas we shouldn’t expect to win in the next general election nor the next round of locals, and our commitment to the Corbyn project shouldn’t be tested by that failure. What is necessary is an extensive movement towards community organising – the ‘Corbynism from Below’ increasingly taken up by Momentum and Labour. I won’t go into the specifics here, because they’ve been discussed ample times before, but it is worth thinking through the problems posed for would-be community organisers by being ‘locked out’ of a locality. Building community power will mean first building communities which bring together those who are ‘locked in’ with those who have lived in the locality for only a short time. And it will also be necessary for these struggles to account for the likelihood of key organisers moving away – by ensuring that local knowledge is not kept locked away in people’s heads, and with councillors providing a measure of stability. This sort of organising will be vital for Labour councillors in minority Labour Groups, and for Momentum-supporting councillors where the Group is controlled by the Right.

Where the Left can influence the leadership of councils – or where they have won control of those councils themselves – we need to start producing radical policies which will win over those unconvinced. I discussed aspects of this last year, but thankfully since that time some progress has been made on this front. The Preston Model is starting to be spoken about more seriously as something that other councils could take up – although thorough consideration needs to be made about the extent to which it is generalisable in areas where people largely do not live and work in the same local authority. Nevertheless, this attempt to show that councils could still do something radical in the face of cuts was rewarded, in Preston, with a gain of two councillors. The creation of the Momentum Councillors Network is another positive step towards formulating these sorts of policies elsewhere.

Further moves in this direction are essential, because the policy challenges facing Labour in local government are monumental. Over half of central government funding for local authorities – already cut to the bone – will be taken away by 2020, leaving some areas in receipt of no funding whatsoever from central government. Virtually all authorities have seen council tax increase, but that will be insufficient to stave off crisis – and the brunt is likely to be borne by the poorest. A Tory-controlled county council, Northamptonshire, has declared effective bankruptcy – partly due to mismanagement, but largely down to the circumstances which all councils now face. Other county councils are likely to join them, and Greater Manchester might not be far behind. Inevitably, there will be further divisions as some advocate a firm refusal to cut – but it’s hard to see what such a refusal would look like in practice, and the Party rulebook is pretty clear about how it will treat councillors who oppose legal budgets. The role of the GLC in the 1980s is also a reminder of the problems which would face such a rebellion; variations in the specific situations faced by councils will undermine the support that comparably better-off councils could provide to poorer ones.

One way of building local power behind councils hoping to resist the cuts might be the Differential Progressive Council Tax (DPCT) touted by Chris Williamson. By dramatically increasing the level of council tax paid on higher-band properties and shoring up protections for the lowest-paid and most vulnerable, the DPCT provides one method of preventing cuts without the poorest shouldering the burden. Critically, implementing the DPCT would require a referendum which Labour councils would have to win – but the process of fighting such a referendum campaign would open the possibility of building a mass movement against the cuts to local councils. This isn’t something that will work everywhere – particularly in areas where working class residents are ‘locked into’ higher-band properties, given the bizarre way that bands are determined – but it is something that could be explored and pushed for by our leadership. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be an approach that Corbyn and McDonnell are interested in taking up; Williamson left the front bench shortly after making comments supporting the DPCT.

The contributors to On Day One were insistent about the importance of policy being determined locally. Bolton Council’s Linda Thomas ridiculed a supposed “one size fits all” approach to the National Care Service. Sharon Taylor (Stevenage Council) called for greater local control over taxation – admitting but not really addressing, however, the extent of redistribution which would be necessary for this to be equitable. Similarly, Lib Peck (Lambeth Council) demanded an end to ring-fencing and for councils to be allowed to spend their funds as they please – simplifying budget-setting from the council’s perspective but probably making it harder for the electorate to follow the money. Although some of these arguments are justifiable, it’s a weakness of On Day One that its contributors are so reluctant to find areas where national government could have a greater role in what councils currently provide. To make a slightly frivolous example, it is not efficient – and it is actively exclusionary towards those ‘locked out’ of locality – for councils with very similar powers and responsibilities to have completely different websites.

There are also political reasons to hope for a greater standardisation or nationalisation of Labour’s local policies. Our national agenda remains very popular, and likely to win a higher turnout than petty promises about bins. Most seriously, some of the policies being pushed by local politicians are at odds with those we are promoting nationally. The call by Islington’s Richard Watts for an emphasis of standards in schools rather than their status is tolerable in the short-term (where it largely conforms with the policy of the National Education Union) but mustn’t be used as a way of justifying the retention of academies or grammar schools in the long-run. Sadiq Khan has recently been accused of rushing through funding for ‘estate regeneration’ before new rules on balloting – the policy of both the national and London Labour Party – come into force. But there are other problems too: there is little indication that different local authorities are linking their responses to housing crises with each other or with our national policy. The London Plan promises 65,000 homes a year – more than some (Labour-controlled) borough councils think is viable if they are to be affordable, and presumably at odds with our stated ambition to shift the focus of development away from London and the South East. Without a clear outline of our national strategy or vision for the country, it’s very hard for local activists to see how their area fits within it – and what a local coalition to implement it could look like. The NEC’s intervention to end the scandal of HDV in Haringey was welcome but too late coming and needs to be extended to other areas where the local Labour leadership are out of line with our national strategy.

As well as coming up with radical policies, however, we need to think deeply about what shape we want local government to take. We should review the structures of our councils – not just addressing hierarchies or patronage, but geographically. Present boundaries of local government make sense in some areas, when people work or study close to where they live. They make less sense when people are moving around – in London, for instance, when many people commute from a different borough (or from outside London altogether) to get to their workplace. What should local government look like when there is this sort of disconnect – where business rates are raised from people who live in Surrey and spent on people who work in Southwark? We need to think about how local government can match the different layers and circles of locality to which people are attached and in which people live.

We should be open to wholly rethinking democracy in local government. As Amy Cross mentions in her essay in On Day One, councillors are expected to wear “a number of hats”. Some councillors take up executive positions, overseeing the work of departments in their local authority and developing policy. Others play a role on committees, holding local government to account. Councillors are expected to advocate for their ward – whether that’s at the planning committee or in a full council meeting. But councillors are also tasked with ‘casework’ – effectively functioning as elected social workers, chasing up the problems faced by their electors and passing them on where necessary to the appropriate body. These all require very different skills and combining them means that people’s expectations of their councillors are complicated and difficult to meet. We should rethink local democracy so that these roles can be disentangled and reformed – so that we do not necessarily elect people to undertake casework and vote on policy and oversee the council’s executive functions.

In this respect, we would do well to aim for the vision outlined by Raymond Williams in Politics and Letters:

The political idea which we perhaps most need to grasp is the principle, not just that any socialist representative is a delegate, subject to mandate, accountability and recall, but that a representative or delegate in a properly socialist society is not, so to say, all-purpose. Such a person will not be, as almost everywhere now, our representative or delegate for a whole body of connected purposes. Rather he, she, we, they – not the same people, but necessarily different people – will be making this specific contact, that particular inquiry, this outline of a negotiation or a settlement. Some of us will be better at some of it than others, but the principle of closeness to the issue in question must prevail: speaking for ourselves, in all real senses, rather than for ‘my people’ or even ‘our lads’. A socialist representative or delegate system, that is to say, would be very much more diverse and therefore more complex than any existing parliamentary or assembly models, condemned as these are to some singular all-purpose role. 1

That’s quite ambitious. More immediately, we should explore the introduction of proportional representation in local government – something that would have seen Labour in power in Wandsworth. Perhaps more critically, such a shift would allow Labour councillors to drop the charade of trying to represent a whole ‘community’ – landlords and bosses alongside tenants and workers – which hampers the possibility of Labour councils struggling for the interests of their electorate wholeheartedly.

None of this is intended as an argument for simplification – for “one size fits all” or imposition from Whitehall. Our project will require attention to local variation, and flexibility in how our policies are implemented. But something being complex is not the same as something being complicated. The development of ‘clusters’ discussed by Savage produces an opportunity for local politics and problems to be thought about nationally; similar areas can apply similar policies, and national policy can be written to distinguish between and appropriately advise distinct ‘clusters’. And we can devise strategies for bringing together those ‘locked into’ and ‘locked out’ of localities – a politics which makes sense for people with varying relationships to place. In doing so, Labour would be making a break with both the weak generalisations of the Centre for Towns and the elitist expertise of right-wing Labour councillors – finally advancing a programme in local government to match or go beyond our national strategy.

  1. Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review, (London: Verso, 2015), p.434.