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Thinking national, voting local

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The simple explanation for Labour’s decline as a force in local government is that most local elections in most places tend to reflect voters’ opinions about the party in power nationally.

However well Labour councils have performed and however well regarded their councillors usually counts for little in the headlong rush to ‘give the government a kicking’.

The Conservatives suffered a similar reaction after Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 victory.

Their councillor numbers dropped from more than 12,000 to fewer than 4,500 before the 1997 general election. By that same time they controlled just 13 councils across the country nine of them ‘second-tier’ districts.

Localists may decry this trend, but it appears to have become an established fact of political life and one with serious consequences for the governing party.

On the one hand, it has to deal with largely unsympathetic local authorities who are not slow to see and try to exploit partisan motives in the allocation of grant, the capping of spending, and the removal of services from local control. Witness the reaction to the sub-national review.

On the other hand, many of its traditional supporters get out of the habit of voting for the party and its local activist base, which these days largely means councillors, is decimated by the succession of election defeats.

In fact some 95 councils in England now have no Labour representatives at all. As things stand Labour will fall further behind next spring when it could lose another 300 councillors and control of its remaining four county councils.

Then, come the next general election, the party finds itself short of people to stuff envelopes and knock on doors and suffers from low morale among the few who are left.

The difference in the number of helpers mobilised by Labour and the Conservatives at the recent Crewe & Nantwich parliamentary by-election is a concrete illustration of the point.

Nor is there a quick fix available. A general election defeat usually ushers in a period of introspection and little immediate attention is paid to the unglamorous but vital task of revitalising the grassroots.

As the Conservatives are only too painfully aware, it took six years and a second electoral humiliation in 2001 before they again became the largest party in local government.

For the dwindling band of Labour councillors in Manchester next week the irony is that a Conservative victory in 2010 is likely to be the necessary first step on the path to reversing their own party’s local fortunes.

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