Back to school – Lessons learned

LAST WEEK’S local elections provided plenty of food for thought – and learning points for politicians from all parties.

Every candidate will tell you the campaign is a frantic and draining period – I have been on literally hundreds of doorsteps talking to people – but it’s also absolutely vital that all politicians have listened to what they were told.

Whilst you ultimately hope to secure the votes you need, the intensity of the engagement and the experiences of an election campaign are a crucial insight into what local people are really thinking – and whether your arguments are ‘real world’, and where you must improve to serve them better.

From an Oldham Council perspective I was pleased with the end result.

The new composition of the chamber now stands at: Labour 45, Liberal Democrats 10, Conservative 2, UKIP 2 and Independent 1.

Labour won all but one of the seats that they were defending and, in fact, increased our representation by three seats.

In terms of context, our share of the popular vote was maintained at a healthy 45 per cent and the result means this is the largest Labour Group on Oldham Council since the borough was formed in 1974.

Without making party political points here – as you know, this is not the place to be doing that – I do think there were a plenty of hard facts for all to digest.

Who locally, for example, would have called that Ukip would win in Saddleworth West and Lees? That result certainly came from leftfield to all concerned – perhaps even including the victors.

That was the shock local result and there was indeed much talk nationally about the ‘earthquake’ of Ukip’s performance and its impact on the long-standing major political parties.

I personally wouldn’t see it so much as having irrevocably transformed the landscape, more as Ukip having made a breakthrough at this stage. Turnout, for example, did not significantly increase at all, so that doesn’t tally with the idea of a seismic shift that encouraged previously disenfranchised and disconnected people to go out and vote.

Much of the national campaign debate focussed around the questions of Europe and the economy and – underpinning that all, of course – the need to provide more decent jobs, housing and opportunities. These, for me, remain the key issues that all mainstream parties must now step up to address.

The Government claimed credit for falls in unemployment but the evidence in Oldham highlighted a more worrying reality that simply cannot be ignored.

Around a third of people here no longer claiming JSA (Job Seekers Allowance) are not in work at all – they have simply been shifted onto Universal Credit.

Of those which remain the evidence suggests many are in low-paid, low-skilled employment with little job security. Nationally the number of zero hour contracts has risen to more than 1.4 million. In Oldham the weekly wage has fallen to £417 a week – down from £437 – at the same time as the cost of living continues to rise.

The average working week in the UK is now just 32 hours with full-time employment reducing and more than 1.2 million people working fewer hours than they would want to. In Greater Manchester 22 per cent of workers are earning less than the living wage, which means they rely on top-up benefits just to cover the bills.

In low-skilled and temporary work, British workers do see pressure from European workers. The ‘race to the bottom’ for cheap and accessible labour is clearly driving down employment security and wages in some companies. Put simply, more people are chasing less-secure employment.

That is a failure that everyone in politics must address because some local people here on the doorsteps  – both white and Asian – do blame economic migrants from Europe.

That might make uncomfortable reading for some – and it should. But if we fail to address the underlying driving concerns that are affecting people then those fears can be played upon by others with ulterior motives.

It’s wrong that the blame often falls on people who are simply working hard to make a better life for themselves. In my view, having a positive immigration and free movement of labour policy isn’t a failure at all – but to kneejerk towards the extreme opposite as a reaction clearly would be.

The failures needing to be addressed are about government policy and investment in public services. If jobs and decent housing were plentiful and there was genuine economic optimism across all levels of society then I suspect there would be no need to ‘blame’ anyone.

And if we funded that by a fair taxation system where everyone paid their bit into the system, the burden also wouldn’t be falling on those at the bottom end of the pay scale.

But the reality is that’s not where we are in 2014.

What we have is a situation where people frustrated by standards of housing, education, public services and low wages are tempted to look to blame someone.

A narrative about benefit culture in the national media has pitted poor people against poor people and, at the same time, some have sought to focus the anger of those trying to make ends meet against those people who are coming here to make a better life for themselves.

Make no mistake, this is a serious moment for all mainstream parties – and it will require a serious response.

I have said all along at Oldham Council that we are not in the business of managing decline.

On a local level I’m more determined than ever to continue the hard work underway to help our local communities define for themselves the future they aspire to and deliver schemes that will bring the regeneration, inward investment, better education and housing they need and deserve.

The challenges are legion – and the pace of work and change will be unrelenting.

It feels very much like being ‘back to school’ at my desk today and we’re here determined to remember the lessons from last term.

Last night the finishing touches were put to our new-look Cabinet, and today I am carrying out interviews as part of the Selection Committee for our new Chief Executive.

Tough challenges lie ahead. We can not shirk from taking the tough decisions that will be needed.

Thanks for listening,

Jim 

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