Labour’s not-so-very-local election broadcast shows how unimportant local decision-making is to Ed Miliband’s party

Tonight’s Labour local election broadcast, starring telly’s very own Lord (Robert) Winston, climaxes with the rallying cry:

On Thursday May 3rd, vote NHS, vote Labour

Exactly how voting Labour then will help the NHS isn’t explored — not surprisingly, because it won’t. There’s a reason these elections are called local elections, after all.

Before highlighting Labour’s misleading tactics I thought I should first check out the Lib Dem record on fighting local elections. I have to say I was expecting to find comparable examples, times when the party leadership had called on citizens to cast their vote not in order to elect an energetic and competent Lib Dem council but instead to ‘send a message’ to Tony Blair or Gordon Brown in protest at Iraq or the scrapping of the 10p tax-rate or the 75p pension rise or… etc.

But actually that’s not what I found. In fact Lib Dem local election campaigns — no matter the outrages against international justice or civil liberties or taxing the poor perpetrated by the Labour Government of the time — always focused on issues that were the remit of local councils to try and improve.

Don’t believe me? Here’s the roll-call of every Lib Dem local election campaign launch (that didn’t also coincide with a general election) in the last 10 years:

  • 2002 (Charles Kennedy): “Liberal Democrats believe that local councils should be set free to provide quality public services that meet the needs of local people”
  • 2003 (Charles Kennedy): ‘This year’s rise in Council Tax is to be the central target of the Liberal Democrats during the forthcoming local election battle.’
  • 2004 (Charles Kennedy): Lib Dems ‘believe their plans to scrap the council tax and replace it with a local income tax will be crucial in their battle to win over voters.’
  • 2006 (Ming Campbell): ‘The Liberal Democrats will be offering “fresh choices” to voters with pledges to cut crime and scrap the council tax, Sir Menzies Campbell says.’
  • 2007 (Ming Campbell): ‘Sir Menzies focused on the record Lib Dem councils have had in cutting crime and on environmental policies.’
  • 2008 (Nick Clegg): ‘The Lib Dems have claimed to be the “practical” party of local government at the launch of their campaign for council elections in England and Wales.’
  • 2009 (Nick Clegg): joint Euro/local election launch — ‘The Lib Dems were the only party which could get out of Europe “what British families need”, [Mr Clegg] stressed.”‘

Indeed in 2004, the party went out of its way nationally not to use the issue of Iraq, with both Ed Davey and Charles Kennedy saying local elections should focus on the issues relevant to what local councils can achieve for residents:

Jeremy Vine: Let me stay on the war, in terms of the elections, if I can. There’s a quote from your local government, Ed Davey, your local government spokesman, who says: “War is not an issue for local elections. Our advice to candidates has been not to campaign on the war, because it’s not appropriate. With our citizens fighting it’s in poor taste.” You agree with that?

Charles Kennedy: Yes I do agree with that, and my strong impression, as I go around the country, as I have been for weeks now on the local election campaign, is that people are concerned about what’s happening in their community, and what difference the Liberal Democrats can make. I think for the European elections, it is a different calculation.

I think a lot of people want to send a signal to Tony Blair, very directly, that they are extremely concerned about the state of affairs in Iraq, about our country’s position in terms of international standing, and that is a very appropriate forum in which to do it. I think for the local elections, yes, I agree with Ed. I think he’s right.

Labour’s decision to campaign in the local elections on an issue none of their would-be councillors can do anything about says little about Labour’s concern for the NHS, and an awful lot about how unimportant they think local decision-making really is.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • David Boothroyd 11th Apr '12 - 8:15pm

    Can you tell me in how many local election leaflets since about 2003 Lib Dem candidates have mentioned their opposition to the liberation of Iraq?

  • Foregone Conclusion 11th Apr '12 - 8:37pm

    What about our latest party political, which is about fairer taxes? That said, a national campaign on local issues is obviously very hard to do (although we can still do ‘free, fair and green’, and point at a couple of examples).

  • Sorry not pro the Labour broadcast but the bbc report on the launch of the Lib Dem campaign shows Clegg highlighting central government issues such as income tax, state pensions and the pupil premium:

    Is this a case of pot versus kettle ??

  • Nicola Prigg 11th Apr '12 - 9:29pm

    I have to say our broadcast this year was about national issues.

    Scottish Labour’s broadcast was different, it had David Tennant narrating and showed Scottish people painting a picture with some writing in the middle, that I’ve completely forgotten.

    I can’t remember it because we were talking over it.

  • Malcolm Todd 11th Apr '12 - 9:50pm

    But after the tremendous Lib Dem improvements to the Health Bill [tm], surely local authorities are represented on the Health & Well-being Boards, which are the figleaf of democracy sorry I mean major democrat input to the health service at local level? So that having Councillors committed to fighting for the NHS will be important?

  • God help us if we are to rely on the typical Labour councillor to protect patients’ interests through the Health & Well-being Boards!

  • Yeah, the LD broadcast I was emailed – – is entirely about national issues, so I really don’t think we can claim to have set a good example this year.

    Which is a shame as it could have said, “unlike Labour and the Conservatives, every Liberal Democrat council in England has frozen council tax… Also, Liberal Democrat councils are twice as likely to give pay rises to low paid workers compared to Labour and five times more likely than the Conservatives.”

  • Malcolm Todd 11th Apr '12 - 10:23pm

    Sorry, it’s that “irony doesn’t work on the internet” thing. I keep trying to prove it wrong, but I’m just not good enough at it.

  • Peter Watson 11th Apr '12 - 10:45pm

    “Exactly how voting Labour then will help the NHS isn’t explored — not surprisingly, because it won’t. There’s a reason these elections are called local elections, after all. ”
    Surely the point you are trying to make about the NHS not being an issue for local politics contradicts entirely the NHS reforms that we LDs are wholeheartedly behind </sarcasm.
    We've been told that it was not top-down reorganisation from the national centre, and it will increase localism in the NHS with locally elected councillors/mayors on the local commissioning board. Apparently not, then.

  • Not often I agree with David but to suggest that the war was not a major issue in LIb Dem local election campaigns in 2004 is very much at odds with my recollection. Indeed I’m fairly certain I produced a lot of artwork for people to use with photos of George Bush and Tony Blair on!

    It was of course only one issue along with others both local and national that were more high-profile than that. ISTR in Oldham the scrapping of Neighbourhood Wardens was a higher profile issue.

  • Peter Watson 11th Apr '12 - 11:01pm

    I tried to address Malcolm’s irony issue with html-style sarcasm tags but the formatting doesn’t seem to like it.
    To summarise without irony or sarcasm ..
    . a national launch of a local election campaign is only ever going to refer to pretty broad topics
    . the NHS is a very important issue, locally and nationally
    . it’s no good complaining about Labour taking easy shots at the open goal we have given them – just get out there and defend the NHS reforms if you believe in them (I don’t, so won’t)

  • Foregone Conclusion 11th Apr '12 - 11:04pm

    While there’s no doubt that this particular PPB is very national in content, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piece of literature put out in a local election campaign from us that was entirely or even largely about national issues. In comparison, I have received a leaflet from Labour recently which was entirely about national issues, and for that matter was entirely negative, the only nod to the fact that it was a council election being the picture and name of the candidate at the bottom. Of course, that’s playing to our respective strengths in large part rather than being a sign of some inherent virtue…

  • Richard Dean 12th Apr '12 - 12:08am

    It’s not about what it’s about. It’s about what voters think.
    Do voters necessarily think local elections are about local issues?

  • CroydonDunblanite 12th Apr '12 - 1:08am

    What does this message say about the future of politics? Its more what it didn’t say to my ears…

    See here is the conundrum on one hand we have a broadcast which, you are right does not run on local issues per se but on a national policy. The trouble is that 1) it is a national policy that is deeply divisive among the general public and 2) There is nothing more central to a community than its health care 3) It was not something in either parties manifesto to push through this kind of change to the NHS. What is really interesting about this is what it says about the thinking of the labour party. They had an open goal to say in exactly these terms (this is an) “Iliberal and Undemocratic” policy . Now given the overall weight of compromise the that has had to be done in the first couple of years (not saying student finance but….) that is a slogan the Lib Dems would struggle to shrug off.

    Instead Labour have made it a pure attack piece on Cameron and the Conservatives. Now the obvious signal is its ‘us against them’ and at 9-11 % in the polls the Lib Dems don’t matter – the ones that were going to defect have done so already. But I suspect the subtext is we are not going to attack the Lib Dems (in any meaningful way) because we are going to try and rebuild a relationship with you first at a local level and then a national one (if only you will disavow some of these policies you don’t really like anyway says a smiling Ed to Tim Farron). Then the choice comes… and the choice is this – I think the Labour party is expecting another hung parliament at the next election but they will get the most seats they will need Lib Dem support (or worse they think the SNP may actually win the independence vote). They will present the party with a choice, The carrot will be a union of humiliation for the current leadership. The stick will much like the one they were given by the Lib Dems, “come into partnership at the cost of your leader or we will push you to what the public perceive to be the extremes of your policies”. Just as Labour were made to tack to the left by not embracing the Lib Dems, the Lib Dems would be made to seem to tack to the right and for good measure they will start using the Illiberal Undemocratic tag and try and squeeze the life out of the Lib Dems to create a two party state.

    an interesting broadcast for interesting times…. and one you certainly cannot dismiss as same old Labour.

    NB For clarity I am a Social Democrat who has bounced between Lib Dem SNP and Labour since I first voted in ’87 dependent on which constituency I have been based in, with my political opinions shaped by opposition to Thatcher, followed by first support for then opposition to Blair. It has been my privilege to have voted for Richard Allen, David Steele, George Robertson and some excellent candidates that did not win…

  • Surely Labour are just recognising (and exploiting) the fact that many people do vote on national issues in local elections.

    They shouldn’t, but they do.

  • Stephen – this article is spectacularly wrong on two counts:

    1) You clearly don’t understand the Health & Social Care Act, but one of the key points about it is that it makes local authorities relevant to the NHS, through Health & Well-being Boards. So it is a local election issue.

    2) Every Lib Dem local election leaflet I saw between 2004-2007 had a photo of Tony Blair and George Bush on. How was that relevant to the local elections? And, as many of your members have pointed out here, Nick Clegg is campaigning on national issues like income tax. So, even if you were right about the NHS not being a local issue, this article would be staggering hypocrisy.

    I think the real reason you have written this is because you know how damaged the Lib Dems have been by supporting the Tory marketisation of the NHS. At the next election, other parties will be campaigning against ‘Lib Dem NHS privatisation’. And rightly so

  • “On Thursday May 3rd, vote NHS, vote Labour”……………Labour fighting elections by highlighting a policy which was almost universally (including most grassroots LibDems) disliked/distrusted? Shame on them!

    Anyway, in my experience, unless there are really outstanding local issues (a hospital or school closure) most people vote along party lines.
    Nick has chosen to fight on the National Issues he feels reflect well on the party; can we please stop ‘whining’ about
    “Nasty Labour” and fight a positive campaign on our strengths (although, God knows, after our performance on such high profile matters as ‘Tuition Fees’, ‘The Disabled’, ‘The NHS’, ‘Child Poverty’, etc. the pro-list is shrinking).

  • David Boothroyd 12th Apr '12 - 6:33pm

    What issues did the Lib Dem party election broadcast “for the English local elections” raise? Changes to the income tax personal allowance, the so-called ‘tycoon tax’, and the state pension. All of these are matters which are only decided by national government. Hypocrites the lot of you.

  • Steve Griffiths 12th Apr '12 - 7:06pm

    Well I have just watched this evening’s Lib Dem ‘local’ election broadcast and there was not a scrap of local issue in it. As David Boothroyd has just written, such hypocracy. Hardly designed to get old campaigners like me back again – and you need us desperately. Just who is running the Lib Dem’s local election strategy these days?

  • CroydonDunblanite 16th Apr '12 - 1:24pm

    I’m sorry to say the eyes are there, the ears are working, but Mr Brain is long gone…

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