Cllr Harrison Rone-Clarke for Rock Hill in Bromsgrove District Council gives a fascinating insight into being both a Councillor and activist in a safe Conservative seat as well as offering a manifesto for affecting change under such conditions.
Within our movement, an all too easily forgotten group are those who live and campaign in constituencies with large Conservative majorities and councils under tight Tory control. Ask yourself where the Labour Party machine (for understandable reasons) focuses the brunt of it’s electioneering; which constituencies select parliamentary candidates first, where does most of the funding wind up? There’s obviously good reason for this, in knife-edge constituencies, money talks, it buys ads, leaflets, targetted letters, venues for town-hall discussions and much more and when we win, it brings us a step closer to the transformative Labour government we’re all dreaming will one day hold the keys to number 10.
But think for a moment, if you will, of the activists in safe Conservative seats, standing shoulder to shoulder with Labour councillors, the only ones fighting back against the injustices that are being perpetrated against the weak and vulnerable; what should happen if, without adequate support from the party, they should be unseated and lose the scraps of influence they’ve been using for the good of their neighbours.
Now that I’ve emphasised the importance of Labour representation, even in a sea of blue, it’s worth explaining how Labour can and should exercise what little influence it has in Tory strongholds…
- Active representation: The austerity politics of the last decade has brought about unprecedented levels of inequality within our society, millions of our people grapple daily with some kind of socio-economic issue, be it insecure work, housing, crumbling infrastructure and more… Active Labour voices can’t put out these burning injustices, but they can certainly alleviate them. For the record, I myself became a Labour Councillor in the 2019 local elections and often find myself dealing with housing providers, seeking to improve my residents living conditions or battling the DWP to secure benefits to those who need them. Organisers and councillors who take on casework truly are the first defence against austerity.
- Build a movement: Something that grates at me, perhaps more than anything else since I was politicised, is Tory calls for ‘civility’ and cross-party cooperation. As sweet as this sounds, I’ve found that the rifts between myself and my Conservative counterparts can be impossible to bridge; while I believe those employed by my authority deserve a living wage, the Conservatives don’t agree, while I believe that we have to take bold action to tackle climate change, including becoming carbon-neutral by 2030, the Tories just won’t agree to it. More often than not, ‘working together’ means you’re expected to nod along and let the Tories do whatever they want, all in the name of ‘civility.’ The small nuggets of progress that my local Labour Group have secured, haven’t been by cosying up to them, but by applying pressure, be it through the press, letters from the public etc… Everything you do, you should do shoulder-to shoulder with your residents. By bringing the public into the process of opposition, you can inform them of the goings-on within local politics and build consensus; when the Tories see that you’ve got the backing of the electorate and therefore threaten their political careers, they’ll start to concede to you (and probably try to claim credit for your ideas).
- Stand to win: Even in strong Conservative areas, some of the more difficult wards can easily be brought into play with the right candidate and a campaign fought on local issues. In my experience, standing candidates in more difficult areas who fully intend to campaign to win sends a message to the controlling group that they have to work for their position, answer the tough questions and engage with their electorate. In many ways, this draws upon the last point, the more fearful the Tories are that your message is resonating, the more likely they are to co-opt parts of your platform and work with you when the election’s over. In my own election, despite my district having returned a Conservative majority for over two decades, pre-election projections described our race as ‘too close to call.’ The Tories, afraid of losing control of the Council, spent the final weeks of the campaign working harder than we’d ever seen. On the day of the count, despite the fact that the controlling group narrowly maintained their majority, I recall a comrade who had stood in a neighbouring ward, cutting the Tory majority down from 300 to just over 60 telling me: ‘I made him work, that’s all I could ask for.’
While we can’t enact the bold changes we’d like in areas with seemingly unending Conservative control, securing small victories for working people can make all the difference. That’s why, when it comes to election time, we should all make an effort to remember that Labour, even in opposition, is a force for good. Of course, we should always look to make gains, but maintaining that small voice for social-justice where it is most needed is just as important.
Cllr Harrison Rone-Clarke