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It’s time to put in some hard Labour

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The erosion of Labour’s local council base threatens the party’s fortunes at a national level.

Not even Labour’s most optimistic supporters would claim they are looking forward to the annual conference.

The mood as the party descends on Manchester is gloomier than Alistair Darling’s assessment of the economy.

On almost every count, Labour is in poor, if not critical, political health. MPs are fractious, the party finances dire and the poll ratings in need of urgent cardiac resuscitation.

Add to this pot a leader on the rack and a resurgent Conservative Party and you may wonder why anyone has bothered to book a train ticket to Manchester Piccadilly.

But the brutal truth facing Labour is that its situation is actually worse than this.

If you want an accurate assessment of a party’s wellbeing then you should look at its local government base . And on this measure, Labour is struggling.

Without wishing to be too dispiriting to those gathering in Manchester , the statistics are grim.

In 1996 Labour controlled 207 councils, now it is 48. This is fewer than the 109 the party ran when it was at its lowest ebb in 1979.

This May’s local elections saw Labour haemorrhage 333 councillors after its share of the vote hit a 40-year low. The party now has a rump of 4,437 councillors in England out of 19,768.

The concern among many in Labour is that the leadership has failed to learn the lessons from the Conservatives. During their 18 years of ascendancy under Margaret Thatcher and John Major the Tories, deceived by their national success, allowed local support to wither.

Alongside an ideological complacency, there was an institutional laziness which failed to invest time or money in local structures. As the council base contracted, so did the Conservatives’ organisational structure. Constituencies were forced to share agents, local parties struggled to attract members and wards went unrepresented.

The legacy of this indifference to the town halls and local associations can still be felt today and may yet prove the difference for David Cameron between a hung parliament or an outright majority.

Even after this year’s electoral triumph the party still has no councillors in Liverpool and Newcastle , while its sole representative in Manchester was the result of a defection.

For those fixated with the national scene this may not seem particularly pertinent until one remembers that the Conservatives have no MPs in Birmingham , Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds , Sheffield and Glasgow . It does not take a psephological genius to work out that the state of your local support has a direct bearing on your national prospects.

Chris Leslie, director of New Local Government Network and a former Labour minister, says councillors are “definitely the bedrock” of Labour’s organisation. And therefore, he argues, the party’s resurgence is “very much dependent” on whether it has a “local campaigning structure”.

Of course, national politics throws a long shadow over the local scene and Labour’s fortunes in the town halls are dictated in part by the performance of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his government.

There are some ultra-Blairites who believe that membership will miraculously improve and council seats will be instantly won back if there is a change of leader.

This casual attitude to the party is both insulting and cavalier. It ignores the changes in voter behaviour and campaign techniques which will see the main parties become progressively more reliant on local support if they are to achieve national success.

Hamstrung by£18m in debts, Labour is not in a position to pay for the type of general election campaigns it staged in 1997, 2001 and 2005. And even if money were not a problem, it is not certain that such lavish campaigns would appeal to voters.

Just as the message must change, so must the way it is conveyed. The combination of Lord Ashcroft’s extensive funding of local Tory associations, the public’s greater trust in local media and the localism brought about by the internet will have a profound effect on how the next general election is played out.

Yet Labour remains organisationally weak at a local level. This is partly because of the dismal state of the party’s finances and partly because of the legacy of having a leader in Tony Blair , who was apparently indifferent to the rank and file.

The party HQ used to boast four full-time staff dedicated to local government, now there are just two part-time officials assigned to the job. Of more concern, next Spring’s conference, traditionally the springboard for the local elections, has been cancelled.

The lack of investment (personal and financial) in the local Labour movement is a cause of alarm among some ministers. It also puts more pressure on MPs to galvanise activists for canvassing and campaigning.

“Many constituency Labour parties feel unloved and they should be. More needs to be done, particularly in organisational terms,” said a member of the government.

Mr Brown is said to be aware of the need to revitalise Labour’s local base. Council leaders and elected mayors are regularly invited to No 10 and communications between the national and local parties has improved.

“I have seen far more councillors in Downing Street in the past 10 months than in the previous 10 years,” was one observation on the contrasting styles of Mr Blair and Mr Brown.

Sir Jeremy Beecham (Lab), vice chairman of the Local Government Association , agrees: “No 10 is more open to us than in Tony’s day. Gordon is more interested and supportive of local government.”

One message relayed to central government is the need for improved funding of essential services. If Labour is to rely on its council base, then it must ensure this support is not undermined by starving local authorities of resources or rolling out policies which alienate voters.

Local government minister John Healey says the party has learnt the lesson from what happened to the Tories in the early 1990s. He points out that in May Labour took control of Slough BC and made gains in Colchester and Ipswich BCs and Oxford City Council .

There is also a sense the party has reached the lowest point of its downward trajectory and its fortunes can now only revive though next year’s European and local elections could provide a rude correction to such optimism.

In other words, he argues, this is not a party which is retreating to its traditional northern heartlands in the same way the Tories bunkered down in the home counties during their wilderness years.

Crucially, of the 4,437 Labour councillors, more than 1,000 are in the 130 most marginal seats. Labour already sees these foot soldiers as playing a central role at the next general election. In some seats they are “the only public voice of Labour”, says Mr Healey.

He is not the only person in the Labour movement who appreciates the importance of the local power base.

More and more attention is being paid to MPs such as Barbara Follett and Vernon Coaker , and Sir Steve Bullock (Lab), the elected mayor of Lewisham LBC , who are using vigorous local campaigning and impressive organisational work to defy the political tide.

The question is whether the rest of the Labour Party, tired by years in power, can expend the same energy.

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