Antony Mullen: As the Tories make gains in Sunderland, Labour are divided and in denial

19 Jul

Cllr Antony Mullen is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Sunderland City Council.

The last few years have been difficult for Labour in Sunderland.

Two of their former councillors have been convicted of child sex offences, the ex-Deputy Leader of the Council was publicly sacked by his Leader, and the Council’s children’s services provision has been deemed Inadequate by Ofsted. If that was not enough, one Labour councillor was sued last year, after he falsely branded a local businessman a “paedo”. Another recently appeared in court charged with allowing minors to ride a quad bike without insurance, though the CPS has dropped the case on the basis of evidential difficulties. Nonetheless, it was unfortunate that just two days before his first court appearance, Bridget Phillipson, the Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, launched a campaign against the blight of quad-biking in the constituency.

It is almost incredulous that a local political party can be so bad at PR. The words “Promoted by Alan Mabbutt” would not be out of place beneath some of the newspaper coverage Labour has earned in Sunderland in recent years.

It is something of a running joke among Conservatives in Sunderland that Cllr Graeme Miller, the Labour council leader, reflects upon local elections results and blames “the national issues”, almost as if to replicate the “This is Fine” meme, in which a dog offers itself reassurance whilst the surrounding room is engulfed in flames.

It perhaps does not take the intellect of Professor Sir John Curtice to figure out that some of the local issues I’ve described also explain why the number of opposition councillors has increased from eight to 33 since 2016.

But at the heart of this joke is a more serious point: Miller is wrong for another reason.

Labour does not just lose seats, we win them. This year, we won six new seats: three in wards where we already had councillors and three in wards where we had no councillors before 2021. We won one of these three new wards – St Anne’s, formerly die-hard Labour territory – by just three votes. But what all the wards we won have in common is that we worked them. We delivered leaflets, canvassed, held litter picks, delivered shopping and prescriptions during the various periods of lockdown, and our candidates kept an active presence on social media. None of the seats we gained were “flukes” or won solely off the back of the so-called vaccine bounce. Indeed, it was striking how little the pandemic or vaccines came up on the doorstep. This year felt very much like politics as usual for us and turnout (which was roughly the same as 2018 and 2019) compounded this feeling.

Certainly the national picture is important – it goes some way to explaining why we improved our vote share across the board – but it was not enough to get us over the line. We needed to showcase our candidates, emphasise their local links, and expose the Labour-run Council’s numerous failures (or as many as the Campaign Toolkit templates would accommodate).

This is what Labour fails at. Its councillors are divided into at least two warring factions. Its leadership fails to properly handle criticism. Tired rhetoric about funding cuts and austerity that feels like a throwback to the Ed Miliband years is the ‘go to’ response for every question asked or criticism levelled. It lacks dynamism and creativity and many of its councillors look ready to retire (and this year, many of them did).

This kind of account might sound obvious (party that puts out a lot of leaflets does well, party with a record of failures doesn’t) but it reflects the kind of local factors that are often not captured in national accounts of why local elections produce the results they do.

An exception to this is the New Statesman. Its coverage of Sunderland’s local political scene is excellent, with one minor issue. Whilst it correctly identifies the Lib Dems’ strong performance in the city, it overlooks that we have outperformed them at the last two sets of local elections. Their ambition to become the main opposition party – sometimes by questionable means – has been unsuccessful.

That said, if Labour is looking to improve its local results, it should take a closer look at the Lib Dem vote.

In the local elections of 2019, Labour lost seats to the Lib Dems by some quite large majorities. Then, at the general election later that year, the Lib Dems got fewer votes across Sunderland Central than they got in the constituency’s Millfield and Pallion Wards alone, just seven months earlier. Then, at 2021’s local elections, those voters returned and the Lib Dems once again got more votes in Millfield and Pallion than they managed at the 2019 general election.

If Sunderland Labour was able to come to terms with its own flaws, it might ask why more people vote for the Lib Dems at local elections than at general elections. Having faced up to reality, it might accept it is not all about ‘the national issues’ and develop a strategy for taking back the voters who support Labour nationally, but not locally.

Is that likely to happen?

Well, as we look ahead to 2022, I am preparing for “No Overall Control.”