Many voted for change in the local elections: the progressive parties had better validate their faith with action

It’s no accident that 1,060 plus Conservative councillors lost their seats in the May elections. People are fed up to the back teeth with Conservative policies: sewage in the rivers, cuts to social care, education, the NHS. They’re sick of reading about cronyism and they have a growing sense that many of the current batch of Conservatives are on the make. And they are seriously concerned about inaction on the climate emergency and disgusted by the performative cruelty of immigration policy. Couple all that with the cost-of-living crisis and the endless examples of ‘one for rule for us and another for them’, and it’s no wonder that many decided it was time the ruling party got a good kicking.

The result of that kicking was some truly game-changing swings in power and a huge influx of new councillors from the Greens, the LibDems and Labour.

But it really isn’t enough for parties to win seats or control of councils on the ABC principle: Anything But Conservative. There has to be more to the electoral victories than the mere reflection of push-back against the incumbents.

Trust in politics is at a low ebb, thanks to Brexit, Johnson, Truss and Sunak. The scandal list is long: PPE, care homes, sewage, Russian-funding, voter suppression, law-breaking … the whole ‘getting away with it’ thing. Yes, that’s mainly at the national level (though see Bournemouth,Christchurch and Poole aka BCP!) but it’s all feeding into people’s views about politics and politicians.

The most frequently used phrase by people on the street when asked why they don’t or won’t vote is:

‘They are all the same’.

It’s a response which should send a real chill through any genuinely altruistic, motivated and honest politician.

So – Labour, Greens and LibDems – are you? Are you all the same? Or are you going to demonstrate that you are different … not just for the sake of it, but to reverse Tory damage and replace it with something new, something hopeful, something that works.

For example, in South Hams, are the LibDems going to demonstrate that they are not ‘Tory-lite’ by rejecting the Freeport scam? That money (in excess of £5m) could be diverted to much-needed affordable housing, or invested in projects to advance us closer to net zero, for example.

Freeports may sound great but are, in practice, just another way of getting round regulation and scrutiny. And please don’t fall for any ‘we can have higher standards’ guff from a government which has abandoned all pretence of complying with or enforcing environmental, animal welfare or food safety standards … just take a look at the sewage scandal or the trade deal with Australia, whose animal welfare standards are far beneath those of the EU. And whilst there may be big fanfares about job creation, that needs to be viewed in the context of a freeport’s scope to erode, or even axe, employment rights, and to suck economic activity from surrounding areas.

What is more, many have noticed with alarm that the proposed ‘freeport area’ not only takes in Plymouth and the South Hams, but also encompasses Dartmoor National Park. Why? Extraction of rare earths? Fracking? Mining?

George Monbiot has described freeports as places where ‘turbocapitalism tramples over British democracy’.

“Their (the eight proposed freeports) objectives were set by an advisory panel chaired by the two most ardent supporters of freeports in the government: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. The panel was composed of two public officials, two economists, five industry lobbyists, one cities advocate, one venture capitalist and two members of dark-money thinktanks (lobby groups that refuse to reveal who funds them). No trade unions, political rights, environmental or public interest groups were represented.”

The Guardian

The economist Richard Murphy wrote a clear explainer which we published:

Bottom line – some people and companies make a shed load of money, benefit from tax breaks and relaxed planning rules while workers are exploited and criminal activity – money laundering, organised crime, drug-trafficking, terrorist financing etc – increases.

It would be good to see the LibDems demonstrating that their party is not settling for being a more palatable version of the Conservatives. They need to uphold those seven core values of which they are so proud: liberty, equality, democracy, community, human rights, internationalism and environmentalism – freeports don’t tick ANY of those boxes at all. Quite the reverse. And we didn’t vote for freeports!

Exactly the same applies to Labour in Plymouth. There have got to be more worthwhile, long term investments of genuine benefit to Plymouth and its people than a freeport!

Voters also want to see politics done in a different way – more cross-party consensus, teamwork – a sense that the interests of constituents are put ahead of tribal politics. It is a great shame to see that, in some of the ‘new’ councils, alliances appear to be being formed on a cynical, party-political basis, securing support from those less likely to present a challenge at future elections. I am sure many would like to see some evidence of implementation of the principles of proportional representation by those who claim to espouse it. That means welcoming close ‘rivals’ to the table in the interests of democracy and adopting a more collegiate approach.

If people do not see real change at the local level, they will conclude that the same will apply in the general election and then, I fear, we will see lower voter turnout as people finally give up on politics and politicians.

The message to the new intake is simple: don’t squander that win – exploit it. Be radical. Be brave. Be creative. This is an amazing opportunity to show people how local politics can begin to really influence policy at a national level. Give us more than a glimpse of how things could be because, Lord knows, we’ve had quite enough of things as they are.