The dilemmas of a would-be councillor

It’s official then. Less than six months after the hurly-burly of the May local elections, the Labour councillor for my home ward of Kentish Town has resigned leaving two Lib Dems and a vacancy, so we will be having a by-election in December for which I have been selected as the candidate.

It couldn’t have come in a better area for us in Camden. Kentish Town was our second best ward in May (after Highgate where we had two councillors elected) and I was only 157 votes behind the Labour councillor who won, so we’ll be fighting hard to take this seat and think we have a good chance.

The council changed hands in May, with the Labour administration replaced by a Tory/LibDem coalition, so this election won’t be about tactical voting but simply about who people want to represent them. And the people in Kentish Town are lovely, with a strong social conscience and very green (with a small g at least). They may very well want their third councillor to be an independent voice that keeps the coalition on their toes.

Winning will take a lot of hard work though. Outwitting the freakishly organised LibDem election machine will involve speaking to as many voters as possible on the doorstep, and competing with the implausible number of leaflets they will put out during the campaign. I dread to think of the amount of paper that will pass through my flat (our HQ) during the next six weeks. It’s all recycled, and is even printed with vegetable inks these days, but it still feels a bit weird as a Green to be creating this much recycling.

Local election campaigns throw up a few dilemmas like this. But there isn’t any effective way to reach the electorate other than to put leaflets through their doors, and it’s clear from speaking to people that our credibility depends on dropping enough of our messages through their letterboxes.

The other quandary that rears its head at these times is what to do about those ‘no junk mail’ notices. There were some fascinating discussions on the Green email lists in the run-up to May on this subject. Some of us argue simply that election leaflets are not junk mail at all but essential to the democratic process.

Fair enough, but then you can lose your nerve when you get an email from a voter who is terribly annoyed at being leafleted ‘by the Green Party of all people’ when their ‘no junk mail’ sticker has been put up for virtuous ecological reasons. There has been a new rash of these stickers going up lately, provided by the Recycle Now campaign, and this makes things particularly tricky for us. Surely people who respond to a recycling drive are more likely to be Green voters? Ignoring these letterboxes feels like a real waste.

Oh dear, what to do? Perhaps we should just rely on our local paper, the Camden New Journal, which covers council business with as much fascination as the nationals cover the shenanigans at Westminster. When delivering in my street the other day, I discovered my favourite hand-made notice on one of the doors: ‘No junk mail,’ it said, followed by, ‘NB the Camden New Journal is NOT junk mail!’ Well said. Now I just have to persuade them to add to it, ‘and Green Party newsletters’.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.