In the week before the Hartlepool byelection, a still loyal Labour voter gave a bleak assessment of her hometown to a reporter from the Financial Times. “We are at the arse-end of the world, just a sprawling housing estate. We don’t really make anything any more.”
The floppy union jack hanging outside Labour’s Hartlepool HQ at the insistence of Keir Starmer’s London-based team turned out to confirm, rather than refute, that verdict. In the absence of making things, Labour tried to make meaning through the display of empty symbols and lost, catastrophically. But there’s another way to create something meaningful: by building relationships. This is where, away from the byelection media frenzy, the Green party excelled in some of last week’s other elections for local councils in England.
You don’t get Green candidates sweeping into towns every few years promising to keep factories open and restore lost trades. What they do ask is how they can help to make the place you live in better. In Birkenhead, Wirral, where shipbuilding employed 16,000 in the 1950s, and whose last remaining shipyard, Cammell Laird, has just announced more than 140 redundancies, the Greens won three seats that had predominantly been Labour.
Though Birkenhead stayed loyal to Labour in 2019, the area may seem ripe to go the same way as former Labour heartland seats captured by the Conservatives in the last general election. It is largely working class and ex-industrial, with an older, whiter population than the national average. But Wirral’s new councillors, Harry Gorman, Emily Gleaves and Jason Peter Walsh, won their seats on a massive green-ward, not right-ward, swing from Labour.
The Greens are changing tack at a council level, seeking to campaign less on the wider issue of climate emergency and instead focusing heavily on people’s local environments and day-to-day needs around housing, transport and community spaces. In the past 10 years, the party has targeted and won council seats in poorer areas, often on peripheral estates where the epithet “left behind” can easily be replaced by “segregated by class”.
Chelmsley Wood, the large outer Birmingham estate where I grew up and went to school, went from having one BNP and two Labour members on Solihull council in 2006 to three Green councillors in less than a decade. The election of a BNP councillor on a very low turnout back then should have been the cause of great angst for its remaining Labour representatives, says Chris Williams, a former Solihull councillor who has just become the Green party’s national head of elections.
“It’s like with Hartlepool,” he told me this week. “You thought, would it be the piercing pain that forced [Labour to] change?’ The Greens in Solihull, rather than wait for Labour to jump into action against the BNP after 2006, started door-knocking intensively, asking people what they needed help with and how they would like to see the estate improve.
In a borough cleaved sharply by class and income, housing quickly became central to their efforts. About 60% of social housing tenants in Solihull live in the north of the borough, with a high proportion of the remainder either right-to-buy leaseholders or people privately renting ex-council homes. Not only was the BNP councillor ejected after one term, the Greens now hold nearly all the council seats in north Solihull: having gained one seat last week, it is the second largest party on the council behind the Tories. Labour, meanwhile, languishes in fourth place with just two seats.
“The feeling on the ground was that over the past two or three decades, people were having things done to them,” says Williams. “They kept being told [by Labour]: ‘We know what’s good for you,’ rather than listening and engaging. The whole ‘take back control’ slogan of the leave campaign was exactly what people wanted to hear.” Indeed: 72.4% of voters in Williams’s Chelmsley Wood ward voted to leave the EU in 2016.
While lack of affordable housing is by far the most pressing problem for constituents, other salient issues include bus routes – 43% of people in the Chelmsley Wood ward have no access to a car, compared to 6% in Blythe, on the richer side of Solihull – traffic congestion, noise and air pollution from off-road bikes, fly-tipping and the protection of green spaces.
At the risk of stating the obvious, all of these are local issues with a much wider environmental, economic and social resonance. The cost of leaving them unaddressed, or batted away as if the environment is something you have done to you rather than live in and with, is the pollution of democracy itself.
By 2010, Chelmsley Wood had voted out the BNP. But the question remains: had the Solihull Greens not bothered to campaign on the estate, would the BNP’s win have been followed by Ukip and then – once unthinkable – the Tories?
The BNP made use of revanchist and resentful emotions in the mid-2000s when it identified that cynicism, for a small but growing group of people, was a vote-winner. The Tories, more recently, have given a gloss of respectability to that formula, in a way only they can manage. Give Starmer a union flag and he looks like a parody. Give Priti Patel one and she seems to some like a defender of the realm. To imagine Labour can win that game is somewhat less than forensically lawyerly.
My conversations with new and established Green councillors in working-class areas confirms the party’s experience in Chelmsley Wood: people’s faith in politics, and therefore democracy, is revived first by granular local representation and clear signs that their needs are being met.
Councillors’ activities are precisely where local issues and wider political themes intersect, says Williams: “People are very proud of where they live and if someone is really trying hard to make it into a special place then people like that and will reward you with their vote.”
Julien Pritchard, another Green councillor whose ward includes the long-neglected Druids Heath estate on south Birmingham’s periphery, reiterated this. Representation is “about listening and being visible, contactable, present and supportive, showing you care and not taking people for granted. It’s not credible or realistic to promise to solve every last problem, but you need to be speaking up and standing up for what the community is already doing.”
For a brief period under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership Labour established the Community Organising Unit to try to re-embed Labour’s everyday presence in places where its historic electoral grip was faltering. That it was disbanded almost as soon as Starmer became leader suggests that the right flank of the party has already given up.
This is the growing Green party’s lesson. The floppy flag in Hartlepool, planted there as if it was on the moon, should be more than a symbol of failure for Labour. It should be a sign that you can’t hope to represent places without knowing the people who live in them.