“What do you think you’ll do now?” asked Ruth Cadbury, long-time Brentford Labour councillor and Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Brentford and Isleworth, at the local election count last month.
“That’s easy,” I replied. “I’m going for a beer”.
It would be an overstatement to say I’d sidestepped the question. As far as I was concerned a well-earned drink once the formal business of the day was finally done was as long ahead as I could be bothered to contemplate at that particular moment in time.
The ICG had just fought what had without doubt been its hardest, most high-intensity election campaign in its twenty-year history. More literature had gone out, more doors had been knocked, and more residents spoken to on the doorsteps than in 2002, 2006 or 2010. The outcome of it all had been a substantial defeat. We had held second place in both Syon and Isleworth, indeed widening the gap between ourselves and the third-placed Tories from the previous contest in 2010, to the obvious surprise and disappointment of the victorious Labour teams, but we were still a very long way behind Labour in both.
This, according to the script which had been written in earnest by Labour strategists in the immediate aftermath of 2010, was the contest following which the ICG would finally chuck in the towel and collectively take up fishing. That’s not going to happen, so in that much at least the Labour gameplan had failed to come to fruition notwithstanding the party’s decisive win at the polls.
But there was no hiding from the scoreline – the ICG’s vote had been pinned back to 1998 levels whilst Labour had chalked up tallies of 1500 to 2000 and beyond in every ward outside of Chiswick. The Tories were down to eleven seats (which came almost as a relief to them after persistent whispers of a total wipeout in Osterley and Spring Grove) and the spectacularly mismanaged UKIP adventure had predictably ended in tears.
As always many things were said on all sides during the course of the campaign, and one comment on a local Internet forum from a perennial Labour Party mouthpiece to the effect that “voters aren’t buying into ICG ideology” repeated on me in the light of the result. The lady in question, whilst no longer an activist nor even technically a party member, is nevertheless somebody who wields influence with Labour in Isleworth and who would have been relaying feedback from the stump rather than speculating.
Nevertheless I believe she is wrong. Or wrong at least if the point she was trying to make was that voters who had formerly supported the ICG are now consciously rebelling against attempts to involve them in decision-making and preferring instead the lazy option of deliberately electing politicians who will make decisions on their behalf based upon their own agendas rather than having consideration for the wishes of the wider public. The idea that electors who just a few years before had marched against library closures and embraced litigation against Thames Water over Mogden have suddenly decided to put their placards down and to collectively present their backsides to be kicked makes absolutely no sense at all.
In support of my view I would cite Labour’s own election material, excellent as it was in its layout and presentation, in which the party’s “community” credentials were given pride of place. From (definitely false) claims that Isleworth’s Labour councillors had fought to save Isleworth Public Hall for the community to (probably false) promises that no libraries or community centres will be closed during this administration, Labour outgunned the ICG not by trumping our ideology with its own, but by persuading a good many of our erstwhile voters that it now shared our primary concerns and could at last be trusted with the (our) family silver.
That Labour’s campaigning techniques are now immensely superior to those it had adopted during earlier contests was also a major factor. It is hard to credit that in 2006, when we won all six seats across Isleworth and Syon wards, Labour did not put out a solitary leaflet in the latter, far less knock on a single door. Instead its “campaign” during that year was apparently based entirely upon an assumption that the party would win simply because the locals had a duty to give it their support. Or that in those days ours were the only candidates who paid particular attention to wooing postal voters.
Today we find ourselves up against campaigns in which canvassing data provided by ward activists is processed and responded to by a central, computerised and often salaried party machine, in which individual letters tailored as “responses” to individual concerns can be mailed to individual voters without any extra effort having to be expended by the local teams, which themselves are fortified by squads of activists drafted in from other areas. Tens of thousands of voters throughout the borough were known to have been contacted by telephone canvassers, and none of this takes into account the additional ballast of Labour election material coming through the letterboxes in support of the party’s European election efforts, which would have had some kind of positive spin-off for the local teams however unintended.
But then again all the same things can be said about the Conservatives, who had some very impressive candidates in the field (Fadi Farhat in Isleworth and Ron Mushiso in Syon spring immediately to mind) as well as some less inspiring ones . They too (absurdly) channeled most of their efforts into wards such as Isleworth and Syon, leaving themselves more vulnerable than they needed to have done in marginal areas such as Hounslow South (which they lost) and Osterley & Spring Grove (where they dropped a seat). They too contacted thousands of voters by telephone, and drafted in outside help on the stump, not least from their sitting Member of Parliament. They too produced a dazzling portfolio of glossy, money-no-object leaflets. Even so they once again came in in third place in both wards, just proving the old adage that one cannot make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
Labour’s victory in the ICG’s target wards, thus, was not down primarily in my opinion to the vastly superior resources that it was able to call upon, although that undoubtedly was a big factor, but to the (for us) unhappy convergence of an unpopular Tory-led government with a feeling amongst residents that the time had come to trust a local Labour Party which at last was proclaiming the virtues of community engagement, even if (as some old cynics believe) it did so with fingers firmly crossed.
It is worth relating that having spent several months on the doorsteps speaking, and listening, to many thousands of local voters, I didn’t encounter any hostility whatsoever towards the ICG – other than, of course, from one or two who had been hostile to us to begin with, whom I had called upon partly in the forlorn hope that they might have had a change of heart and partly out of devilment. Nobody had “turned” on us per se. But what I did to be honest witness, and almost exclusively from those whose “traditional” sympathies had been with Labour before they had turned to the ICG in the first place, was a tangible dilution of their enthusiasm towards us. Many who had told us in previous contests that they would “definitely” be voting for us were telling us this time that we could “probably” count on them (which as any experienced canvasser will confirm translates into “probably not”).
In the event it was our trusted core support – those who have become almost “traditional ICG supporters” now that our participation has extended over several contests – who stuck with us. In a conversation with a Labour councillor recently I joked that I could almost name the people who voted for us this time around – an exaggeration, but not a ludicrous one. This was particularly so in those areas where one would expect the Tories to perform relatively well. In the owner-occupied areas of Isleworth ward, off the Worple Road and around Old Isleworth (ironically the areas targeted by the “UKIP” candidates, presumably at Labour’s suggestion) we outperformed Labour, whilst the Tories received proportionately fewer votes, considerably fewer, than they did on Ivybridge. It would appear that the votes we had previously taken from the Conservatives remained with us, whilst those we had taken from Labour on the whole drifted back. This is worth bearing in mind because it means that, for the short term at least, Labour clearly now has a psephological as well as an ideological interest in us continuing to take part in elections.
WHERE TO FROM HERE?
Which brings me nicely to the question of where the ICG goes from here because it is clear that, more than ever before, any decision on our part to abandon the electoral path (a logical decision on account of the growing disparity in resources between community-based candidates and national political parties) is unlikely to meet with the approval of our erstwhile Labour opponents. It was, in my view, our biggest mistake of the 2010-2014 period that our decision as to whether or not to stand this time around was permitted to hang so much on us receiving that approval. We should never again, in my opinion, allow our critics to set the agenda for us in such a way – our strategy henceforth must be determined solely by what suits us and our community best.
Labour’s victory, both in our target wards and across the borough, was massive, but perhaps ironically the local party is now inevitably a prisoner of its own success. With an “official” Conservative opposition which is not only small in number but also weak, demoralised and stale (the “newest” amongst them – Sam Hearn – having been first elected to the Council at a by-election in 2008) the temptation for local Labour to revive its proud tradition of factional infighting will be tremendous. Amid all this, those Isleworth and Syon voters who “returned” to Labour from the ICG on account of its commitments to community-building are unlikely to respond favourably to any reversion to the bad old ways. Having made the commitment, Labour is now obligated to deliver.
Will it do so? The signals, as is so often the case, are mixed and in some respects conflicting. Our aforementioned Labour forum correspondent has delivered herself of the interesting view that with the Conservatives in such utter disarray, Labour’s likely “opposition” will for the purposes of this administration be the ICG and the G15+ group of residents’ associations. Flattered though I was, being an active member of both, it ill portends that a political administration charged with the task of governing in the best interests of a whole community should instinctively consider organised groups of residents to be its opposition.
But can the views of one party spokesperson be accepted as those of an entire organisation? Particularly one that has historically been so fractious and factional?
Appointments to the new Cabinet may offer us some clue. The new Leader of the Council is Syon’s Steve Curran, who as an officer of the Griffin Park Residents’ Association a decade or so ago impressed me a great deal but who since, having been transformed from poacher into gamekeeper in his role as a senior councillor, has worried me in equal measure. On his watch Councillor Curran has overseen the demise of HFTRA (the Hounslow Federation of Tenants’ and Residents’ Associations) and the attempted marginalisation of G15+, but as Leader he may have fresh ideas (at the election count he assured me that he was in favour of a “HFTRA Mark 2” to give the tenants back their voice – I told him we would see soon enough whether this was so).
Perhaps more enlightening – or alternatively perhaps not – are the appointments of the community-minded Syon Councillor Theo Dennison as Lead Member for “Citizen Engagement”, and of Isleworth’s Sue Sampson for “Communities”, a role which includes as a subheader “Community Engagement”. There are all manner of permutations to be read into this one. Do they represent two factions, each appointed to a near-identical role by two different power blocs within the Labour Group? Has the Leader appointed both in the hope that they will counter-balance, maybe even neutralise, one another? Or are they to be two distinct roles in spite of the apparent similarities? It is known that Sue fought hard within the Labour Group to have this particular job appended to her portfolio – is it, for her, just about having the capacity to pour funding into pro-Labour community projects on her own patch (before anybody mentions it I have never suggested that Labour in Isleworth is anti-community per se, just that it has historically been highly selective about which community projects it embraces and which it opposes, invariably depending upon where said projects are perceived to stand politically)?
I have made it my business to try to find out more about where the administration is likely to be heading with all this. I have already had the benefit of long discussions with two prominent local Labour Party members, one following a chance encounter and the other by appointment. I am optimistic that at least some elements within the new administration, particularly much of the new intake, are serious about wanting to take a new and more enlightened approach to community engagement and I think that they at least should be supported by those of us within the community whose causes are likely to benefit from any success they might enjoy.
I also think we should be prepared, both as a community and (for the ICG) as an organisation, to be open-minded about whether local Labour as a whole is prepared, and indeed structured, to deliver on its promises. Those who are keen to may need our support or even our help in their struggles with those who are perhaps less so. It is my hope that, in such an event, the ICG’s support or help will be readily forthcoming.
Above all we need to remember why it is that we have fought elections in the first place – not through force of habit or because we as individuals desire to be councillors but because we want to realise specific objectives for our community. If those objectives can be realised in spite of our electoral defeat then there can be no valid argument for not recognising the fact and no justification for regarding the political powers that be as our adversaries any longer. No reason to fight against them.
There is an awful lot that we can achieve whilst free of the organisational straitjacket that being committed to fighting elections has consigned us to. It is a fresh new approach which I sincerely believe has, for us, come of age.