Friday 4 May 2007

We Must Learn The Lessons

Below is an article I've written for the Guardian's Comment Is Free website on Thursday's local elections:

We must learn the lessons

John McDonnell

May 4, 2007 5:40 PM

The trend in recent years has been for Labour to dip at local elections, but to bounce back at general elections. However this cycle is unsustainable: at each election that dip is getting deeper, and our recovery less. On the basis of last night, the best we could hope for is a hung parliament at the next election.

Having canvassed with Labour candidates in Scotland, Wales and in several English local authority areas, I was not surprised that our vote held up better than was touted. However, we should not believe our own propaganda - playing up fears of a wipeout in the media may soften the blow of these results but, make no mistake, these results are certainly not good.

A share of the vote of just 27% is deeply worrying. The swing against Labour averaged between 5-7% across Britain. Although it is a crude analysis, if this was replicated at a general election the Tories would either be the largest party in a hung parliament or might just scrape an outright majority.

To learn the lessons of last night, we must understand and address what has increasingly turned off our voters, and what has demoralised and weakened our activist base.

By the time all the counts are completed, hundreds of Labour councillors will have been voted out not for their own personal or collective failures, but because of the way New Labour has alienated so many voters and and our own activists - on whom elections are won and lost. One positive is the lack of a breakthrough for the BNP, who fielded more candidates than they have for a generation.

In Wales, Labour remains the biggest party and voters have certainly recognised the "clear red water" between Welsh Labour and New Labour. Even so, if the results of last night were replicated in a General Election, we would lose eight Labour MPs.

In Scotland, the SNP ran a basically negative campaign with little to say about how they would improve Scotland. The fact that they have polled so well is testament to the strength of latent anti-Labour sentiment upon which they have capitalised.

If we as a party are serious about devolution, then we must respect councils and nations enough to determine their own agenda. When I was a GLC councillor, we won and held London as Labour was imploding nationally - running popular campaigns against the Thatcher Government and fighting on our own agenda.

As part of my leadership campaign, which has won the support of a number of local councillors, I am advocating strengthened local government so that councils have the power and resources to address the needs of their communities. In key areas such as regeneration, housing, and education, local councils have lost considerable powers to respond to their communities' needs.

The significance of yesterday's election is to reinforce the message that there is a need for a thorough and objective debate about how our party can re-inspire the broad coalition of support that brought us to power in 1997. Many will have felt relief that this was no wipeout, but it was only a reprieve. We must not repeat what happened to the Tories in the 90s, when they never took that opportunity and eventually went down to cataclysmic defeat.

Parties don't lose overnight, there is a gradual erosion of their base and electoral machine, which leads to sometimes cataclysmic defeat.

Our supporters need re-inspiring and our coalition rebuilding. What better method could there be than a democratic debate for the leadership involving all our members and affiliates?