Friday 23 December 2011

What does the Wembley by-election tell us about cuts?

Wembley Central by-election candidates (Brent and Kilburn Times)
 Just before the declaration at the Wembley Central by-election count last night Labour supporters left the committee rooms, to return in a procession surrounding Krupa Sheth their candidate, for all the world like a Royal Court protectively escorting their shy young princess into her first public arena. Barry Gardiner and Ann John performed their roles as proud King and Queen as if born to it..

There followed a raucous cock-a-hoop Labour celebration that contrasted sharply with earlier glum comments I had heard from Labour stalwarts on the street who had come out to canvas but with major reservations about the cuts. The extent of their victory seemed to take Labour by surprise and the Lib Dems, who had expected at least a closer result were visibly crest-fallen.

Before attempting any analysis of the result it is important to recognise the particular characteristics of the Wembley Central ward. Ethnic, religious and cultural organisations are influential as is clan solidarity and the predominance of large family businesses. This means that party labels may not be as important as other factors.

It was certainly not council policy, experience, or a high public profile that propelled Krupa Sheth to victory as these were all absent from her campaign. The election material from Labour that I saw did not attempt to justify the council's cuts and did little to shift the blame on to the Coalition. The focus on Ken Livingstone's promise of lower fares was the only real policy promise and Labour may be tempted to see that as a portent for the Mayoral election.

The Lib Dems had put a lot of effort into their campaign with half a dozen leaflets/newsletters concentrating on library closures and street sweeping cuts as well as personally addressed letters to voters. The Tories were much less visible on the streets and concentrated on the rights of motorists. They seemed unsurprised by the decline in their vote.

We Greens had concentrated on canvassing in one particular sympathetic polling district to maximise our support there and this tactic worked. However we lacked the resources, in terms of people on the ground, to repeat this across the ward. This was never ideal Green territory and Labour and Lib Dems were able to persuade voters that it was a two horse race.  If there is one lesson I would draw from our campaign it is that we have to build up our activist base so that we can engage face to face with the electorate and have high visibility during election campaigns. Those discussions are probably more important in giving our environmental and social justice policies a high profile than the number of votes cast. Certainly I see myself more as a community activist than an electoralist, as  I believe this blog demonstrates.

It will be tempting to portray the Lib Dem and Conservative result (down 6% and 3% on the 2009 by-election respectively) as the electorate's verdict on the Coalition and the 16% Labour increase as support for Ed Miliband's leadership but for the reasons already discussed I don't think this is realistic.

What perhaps is more dangerous in the short-term from a Green and left perspective, is the possibility that the Labour Council will be emboldened by the result to cut further in the next budget round. I did ask last night, 'What else must Labour cut before the voters turn against them?' and it is does seem that the disapprobation over library closures and other cuts had little impact on the result. It will be important for Brent Fightback, our broad-based local anti-cuts campaign, to reflect on what this means for our campaigning.

Shahrar Ali's report on Brent Greens blog HERE

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