Social Action and its Limits

In this year’s local elections, I lost my seat on Leeds City Council to the Liberal Democrats.

The seat covers a predominantly Remain area and was considered a safe Lib Dem seat before I prised it from them just over a year ago. In the context of Brexit and given my short incumbency, at first glance, the result doesn’t seem shocking.

Yet going into the election, those that knew the area, including seasoned colleagues, activists and Labour members were convinced that I would hold the seat and probably increase my majority. Their optimism was predicated on my reputation in the area for community engagement, but what I prefer to call social action.

Social Action

The model I adopted is recognisable to anyone that has ever been involved in community work at any level; talk to residents to identify issues within specific communities, work collaboratively with the community to find practical solutions to help tackle those issues and facilitate partnership working. It is a simple model and of course, this wasn’t reinventing the wheel. British “leftist” politics has always been concerned with direct grassroots social action. The Cooperative Movement and the Citizens Advice service are both good examples of the natural crossover between left wing political activism and social action. My contribution was minor in comparison; I set up a boxing club, an off-road biking club, a community garden project, organised local fun days and family discos and set up tenants and residents associations.

However, I have long argued that facilitating social action is a concurrent strategy for both the chief aim of improving the lives of those that Labour champions and for electoral success. It seems to me, to be a natural and honourable advancement on the Liberal Democrats’ disingenuous pavement politics; and a way to regain the trust in our politics by demonstrating how our Socialist values translate into meaningful action that actually improves the lives of everyone in the communities we represent.

Regaining the public’s trust

Focusing on regaining the public’s trust should be a fundamental aim, given the undoubted rising tide of public scepticism around politics and politicians. Anyone who regularly attempts to engage with the public on issues of party politics will have regularly been confronted with comments like “they [politicians] are all in it for themselves” or “they never do anything”. There is plenty of survey data to reinforce the door knocking experience, the British Social Attitudes survey found that only 20% of people asked disagreed with the statement “most politicians are in politics only for what they can get out of it personally”. So it is no shock that the latest Ipsos MORI Almanac found that only 18% of people trusted politicians.

The argument here is not for social action as the totality of Labour’s electoral strategy, but rather that it should be seen by our activists and elected members as the cornerstone to any campaign.

The obvious counter-argument is that I didn’t win my election. However, the picture is more nuanced than win or lose. Nationally, Labour’s percentage share of the vote dropped by 7% and in Leeds it dropped by 8%. Whereas the Lib Dems made significant gains, winning 704 seats nationally and increasing their percentage vote share by 3%. Yet, in my ward, we increased my percentage share of the vote by 1% and held the Lib Dems to a 1.5% increase. We also received the highest percentage share of the vote ever for a Labour politician in that ward. That to me, given the context, is progress and proof of the value of social action as an election strategy. That’s without touching on the moral argument for social action.

Over the past month I have obsessively poured through my canvassing data and the polling data for the ward. Two overt trends have emerged. Firstly, floating voters – soft Lib Dems and even some soft Tories voted for us for the first time in 20 years. On the other hand, it was heartbreaking to see that some ardent Labour voters voted for either the Lib Dems or the Greens for the first time in 20 years.

Social action is limited

So what’s clear is that ‘social action’ as an electoral strategy was effective at picking up new voters; what it couldn’t do was convince some Labour voters, put off by our national position, to stay with us. In other words, social action as a strategy is limited and it is not enough to hold off a national swing against us in marginal seats.

So here is what I see as the overarching lesson. Labour voters are principled voters and the national party mustn’t take them for granted. Sounds obvious, but how often have we taken Labour voters for granted before? Voters in Scotland are the primary example. Politics is fluid and so strategy needs to keep pace with context; but what the local elections demonstrated is that, in this crazy political milieu we must concentrate on consolidating our base, before we look to go on the offensive and win undecided voters or voters that haven’t voted for us in the past nine years.

James Gibson previously represented Westwood Ward on Leeds City Council.

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