Labour may have lost the last four national elections, but the party is in power in city halls across the countryby Rachel Sylvester / March 5, 2020 / Leave a comment
After suffering its worst election defeat since the 1930s, Labour looks further from power than ever. It seems astonishing, then, to think there are still some Labour politicians actually running things.
In London, Manchester and Liverpool, Sadiq Khan, Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram are responsible for their regions as mayors, and—what’s more—are this spring running with high hopes of re-election. Meanwhile, Liam Byrne is challenging the Tory incumbent Andy Street in the West Midlands, while Dan Jarvis has at least two years left in Sheffield. All of them have created an identity distinct from the national party. On Khan’s campaign website Labour’s red rose is tucked away in a corner, and the slogan “Sadiq for London 2020” makes no mention of the party.
One former cabinet minister compares the election of Labour mayors to the “long march” to power by the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, a truer parallel exists closer to home. When Labour’s fortunes last fell this far 85 years ago (while the national party was led by another far-left pacifist leader, George Lansbury), the municipal leadership that it mustered was indispensable to keeping it alive.
In particular, Herbert Morrison used his position as head of London County Council to build public housing, pioneer an early green belt, and modernise trains and buses, creating the London Transport Board. This not only got the council re-elected (one poster boasted “Labour gets things done”) but also road-tested ideas such as the “Morrisonian board” to run nationalised industries that were invaluable to the post-war government in which Morrison would serve as deputy PM.
Given this precedent, the incoming Labour leader might wonder if they can distil a few lessons from the Khan playbook. But its rules are easier to read when it comes to broad political positioning than policy. Khan’s approach has been to differentiate himself sharply from Jeremy Corbyn. He has presented himself as “the most pro-business mayor the city has ever seen,” and told me in an interview last year: “I don’t think wealth is bad, not at all.”
Beyond that, the country’s first Muslim mayor appeared to symbolise a mood of tolerance after his 2016 triumph over a shameful “dog whistle” campaign by Zac Goldsmith, who branded him a “closet extremist.”…