By Connor Slomski
The local elections earlier this month were a microcosm of last year’s snap General Election. Labour on net came out cheerily ahead, winning in some places where it has never won before. For Jeremy Corbyn, it was overall a positive picture, as the BBC’s go-to election guru John Curtice suggests that the results would amount to Labour being the largest party if replicated in a General Election. There is cause for concern, though. Whilst Labour would be the largest party, it would not have a majority. The Conservatives gained ground outside of metropolitan boroughs, and there is a ‘firewall’ of small, Leave voting towns that could end up preventing a Labour majority, and that firewall was proved to be a serious obstacle on polling day.
These towns are largely in the Midlands and the North, where Labour is losing its traditional support and struggling to show how it can give control back to communities which have felt disconnected and left behind for decades of both Tory and Labour governments. Thatcher and Blair dogmatically saw cities as economic hubs that would eventually overflow wealth into the surrounding regions if they had heavy investment in infrastructure, plus deregulations with the aim of benefitting the services sector. This overflow of wealth, however, never materialised. The approach ended with many regions being left behind. As Lisa Nandy MP from Centre for Towns puts it ‘It has meant life has got harder, less secure and less hopeful for too many people in towns’.
Without investment, these towns have collapsed, first through the decline of their local economies, and then through the loss of their communities. Without the industries – industries which used to sustain them before Thatcher’s destructive privatisations – these towns lost the capacity to host lives of fulfilling work. Many have had to move away from friends and family to much larger cities for work. This loss, often sneered at by metropolitan fringes of the Remain campaign as nostalgia, is evident in many towns up and down the UK. To see the evidence you only have to take a glimpse at towns in places such as Amber Valley or North East Lincolnshire, in which nearly 70% voted to Leave, and Labour only gained one councillor to the Conservatives seven.
Similarly, seaside towns like Blackpool and Grimsby are struggling to rebalance local economies that have been thrown off kilter, having enjoyed none of the benefits of globalisation. Whether it be through the loss of holiday tourism due to the devastating cuts made by Dr. Beeching to the country’s rail network, or the decline of the fishing industry after the ‘Cod Wars’ with Iceland, these towns have fallen on terribly hard times. In the words of Sam Bratley, who works in Grimsby’s fishing industry, ‘There’s no boats left of our own as such, so there’s nothing there for them, there’s nothing coming through’. This lack of control and lack of self-sufficiency has translated into a lack of pride, and the onus is on Labour to show how in post-Brexit Britain pride can be restored in these towns.
However, there is a path forward. In order to counter loss to large cities, towns must be prepared to stand up for themselves with a combination of Localism and progressive Protectionism. Matthew Brown, the leader of Preston’s Labour Council has already led the way in this field. He has sparked Preston’s renaissance through what he calls ‘Guerrilla Localism’. Where convention has dictated that big contracts in the public sector should be outsourced to the lowest bidder, Brown has made an ingenious effort to ensure that those contracts go to local businesses. The result of this approach is that money stays circulating locally, and therefore the council ends up collecting some of it back through taxation. At that point, it gets reinvested, spurring even more growth. It’s making the funding the council gets (cut by the Conservatives by a third since 2010) go further than it possibly could have otherwise, and actually allowed the investment from the council to grow year on year. This approach can actually be strengthened by Brexit, which allows for reform of procurement law which has until now, prohibited laws to force the public sector to buy some goods locally.
In Guerilla Localism, Labour has a plan that can allow Leave-voting parts of the country to take back control through investment in their own communities, and through protecting and rebuilding local economies. Despite this, it still needs to get the word out. Going into the next General Election, Labour must show that ‘For the many, not the few’ does not translate to ‘For the cities, not the towns’ and put forward a positive vision of post-Brexit Britain, with rejuvenating our towns at its heart.
Photograph: daren via Flickr