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Why Socialist Salford Bucked the Trend

Amid disaster for Labour in elections across its former industrial heartlands, Salford's socialist council gained ground – its mayor Paul Dennett writes for Tribune about the transformative policies which made it possible.

When I was first elected in 2016, I set out a plan for Salford – a plan which over the past five years, I have worked tirelessly to deliver. It is a plan for a council which cares for its residents, a council where people come before profit, a council that looks after its environment and an economy designed to benefit every one of us.

Ours is a city with a number of challenges. As a formerly industrial city, the skilled, well-paid jobs which once sustained our livelihoods and high streets are long gone after the Thatcherite deindustrialisation of the 1980s.

Consequently, we have high rates of poverty and lower life expectancy than many areas of the country. All of these issues mean that we were starting from a lower base than many other areas. So when Salford was faced with ten years of austerity from Conservative and Lib Dem governments, the results were even more stark.

But this city has fought back. Successive Labour leaderships of this council have sustained huge levels of investment in our city over the past two decades. We have invested in building the industrial base of tomorrow in MediaCity, which is now the largest hub of digital and tech industries in the country outside of London. We have invested in our arts and media sector, and in the future, with our logistics and manufacturing sectors through Port Salford.

Since being elected, I have tried to influence our growth to ensure it benefits the residents who live here. We are building council houses again, something many people told us was impossible. We are pushing for more insourcing of services, for better rates of pay and terms and conditions, as well as for more co-operatives, mutuals, social enterprises and small businesses.

Yesterday in Salford we bucked the national trend. The Labour Party here gained seats when many speculated that even in a normal year of all-out elections, we could lose as many as five or six.

We gained ground in Worsley and Westwood Park, previously a Conservative stronghold. We took our message out to the West of the city and won against strong independent challengers – regaining one of our seats. We came within a hair’s breadth of winning in other Tory strongholds, less than 100 votes behind the local Tory group leader in Boothstown and Ellenbrook.

We fought off a nationally-resourced campaign from the Lib Dems in the new Quays ward, and many wards which were considered marginal at the last election are now safe.

The Labour Party’s brand in our city is still strong. Labour can still reach the people of our city with a message of hope and optimism. In Salford, we are resisting the deprivations of a national government which has cut core funding in our city by over 50% since 2010, leaving our council with £220 million less to spend on services and local jobs each-and-every-year.

For me, it is no mystery what has happened to many areas of Labour’s former ‘Red Wall’. Our party has historically represented the poorest and most deprived areas of the country because our party was founded from the trade union movement which emerged from the ‘industrial belt’ areas of the Scottish Lowlands, the Midland corridor, the North West, the North East and South Yorkshire.

In these areas – whose economies and cultures have been decimated by deindustrialisation – the ravages of decades of enforced decline, followed by a decade of austerity, has left towns looking unrecognisable. High streets are empty, housing stock is deteriorating. Our bargain-basement ‘low-pay’ services economy is replacing dignified, skilled and well-paid jobs with insecure, temporary work in service sector professions – and at poverty wages.

But let’s be clear, despite higher welfare spending, and despite more money for infrastructure, a gigantic political opportunity to rebuild the economic base of our heartlands was missed during the last Labour government. Where was Labour’s industrial strategy for the Red Wall – a vision to rebuild our economy? Instead, we embraced the new global economy of finance and services, bleeding yet more life out of the towns where our voters traditionally came from.

Work has been integral to the Labour-voting identity of millions of British people for many years, and the dignity of labour is a cornerstone of Labour’s appeal to so many of our country’s residents. It’s an identity which has inspired many millions to great acts of self-sacrifice and immiseration for the benefit of their colleagues, friends and neighbours – and even for the lives of as yet unborn children.

This is the radical spirit of the Labour movement which has been lost, now blurred by decades of cultural distance from the communities which our party once served. But the people of the Red Wall have not changed, at least not in that regard!

When Covid-19 hit Salford, the immediate outpouring of thousands of volunteers to set up emergency community support networks, food networks, volunteering networks and charitable organisations was overwhelming. It was an outpouring of genuine public concern for the vulnerable, the infirm and the elderly which is deeply rooted in cities and towns across what is now known as the Red Wall.

It was reminiscent in some ways of the great community sacrifices and organisation which occurred during the miner’s strike – the last serious attempt by this country’s trade union movement to protect the industrial character of our nation. Red Wall voters have not moved away from the Labour Party. The Labour Party has moved away from them.

On that basis, I have to say I find it concerning to hear that the approach our party’s leadership appears to be taking in regard to yesterday’s disastrous results up and down the country. It appears that the lesson which has been learned is that we must push further away from a transformative economic agenda for the general public. We must move further away from being seen as radical defenders of the great mass of working people in our society, against the structurally embedded interests at the top who profit from reducing their wages, terms and conditions.

The previous leadership of this party got things wrong, but at its heart there was at least some recognition that a huge shift was needed to reverse the party’s long-standing decline. In 2017, on a radical policy manifesto, the first green shoots of that recovery appeared to happen.

Sadly, by attempting to frustrate the political desires of many in our Red Wall areas in respect to Brexit, we damaged that trust yet further. When Keir was elected as leader of the party, he pledged to learn those lessons. He pledged to bring together the radical policy manifesto of the Corbyn era with a more professional and politically-savvy operation.

Instead, we appear to have moved further away from transformative policies which shift wealth and power back into the hands of the people we seek to represent. So in the wake of yesterday’s calamity for our party, I ask Keir and our leaders to look not only to Salford but to Greater Manchester under the leadership of Andy Burnham, and also to examples from progressive councils across the country where our fortunes have not been so bad.

I ask the Labour Party to look to Mark Drakeford’s successes in the Welsh Senedd, and to Matt Brown’s continued successes in Preston. There is a path Labour can take which unites our traditional voters with young, and new voters. It is a path which isn’t ashamed of our party’s radical roots, which taps into our history and tradition, which puts forward a progressive and dynamic vision for a new and inclusive economy in the future.

It’s a path which is socialist in its core! The ‘centre ground’ no longer exists as it once did. The public now expects us to pick a side and articulate a bold, ambitious and progressive vision for the future which tackles poverty and inequality. It expects us to place the needs working people and families at our core.