How Labour can win back lost support in South Yorkshire – Oliver Coppard

FOLLOWING the local and regional election results, the Labour Party’s identity crisis has been thrown back into the headlines.

How can Labour recover in South Yorkshire after losing overall control of Sheffield City Council in this month's local elections?
How can Labour recover in South Yorkshire after losing overall control of Sheffield City Council in this month's local elections?

The party has lost votes in those communities where we traditionally enjoyed significant support, places like South Yorkshire and beyond. 

Some people inevitably want to blame Sir Keir Starmer. We’ve heard from a range of voices that voters in Penistone, Rother Valley and elsewhere have turned their back on the Labour Party because of what he has or hasn’t been doing in London. 

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Leadership matters, of course, but as a campaigner and Labour Party activist in Sheffield, I disagree with that analysis. 

What can Labour in South Yorkshire learn from the example of President Barack Obama?

In my view, those results were as much a consequence of local frustrations, dynamics and campaigns as they were a reflection of the party’s direction of travel nationally.

As the old adage goes, politics is local. Failing to understand that is part of the problem. 

There are five key areas where the Labour Party can and must improve in South Yorkshire and beyond. 

1 People and place. Any route back to power must start with us listening to what people want for themselves and their families, and for the places in which they live.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer continues to divide political and public opinion.

We can’t expect anyone to lend us their support if we’re not delivering on the priorities of the people we want to represent; not our priorities, theirs. 

We all understand why politicians aren’t always able to deliver, but none of us should accept them failing to listen to what we want.

Barack Obama used to tell his team they should ‘get caught trying’ – that should be the Labour Party’s mantra too.

Tracy Brabin’s promise to try and fix the buses in West Yorkshire is a hopeful sign she’s taken that lesson to heart.  

2 Pride. South Yorkshire gave the world stainless steel and powered the country with the coal dug from under our feet.

People used to know what it meant to be from here; our identity was founded on an industrial legacy that meant something to everyone from Doncaster to Sheffield and beyond. 

In a region where Labour councils have done so much to find a new economic purpose for our towns and cities, we need to learn how to turn that success into a new positive story about our place in the world.

There’s a song to be sung about South Yorkshire’s new industrial revolution; let’s sing it. We have a lot to be proud of. 

3 Pragmatism. Those people I know well, who dedicate their lives to politics, either as activists or elected representatives, are usually inspired by an ideology and a firm set of ideas about how the world should work.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but most people aren’t so certain.

The lesson the Labour Party needs to learn from those like Ben Houchen in the North-East is that most normal people want to see politicians put solutions first.

Where leaders have shown an ability to be flexible, accessible and put common sense first, voters have rightly rewarded that pragmatism. 

Andy Burnham’s recent comment that Brexit has been decided, and now we need to get on and make it work, is exactly right.

Here in South Yorkshire, Sheffield’s Labour Group striking a ‘co-operation agreement’ is a good start. 

4. Principle. Power is nothing without principle.

While politics should be pragmatic it shouldn’t simply be managerial or divorced from a wider purpose. There has to be a reason why people should vote Labour that offers more than marginal gains.

We need to be crystal clear about our values and our principles; that means explaining why we’re asking for people’s votes, not just what we’ll do if we win. 

We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about inequality, social justice, solidarity and fairness; the values at the heart of the Labour Party. The voters I spoke to made it clear they wanted principles, not simply policies. 

5. Localism. As we emerge from lockdown and start to rebuild our local economies, as businesses and public services start to find their feet again 
post-Covid, and devolution moves further and faster, local political representation and connection will matter more than ever. 

That’s why ultimately any pathway back to power for the Labour Party has to run through town halls and communities in places like South Yorkshire, first.

Oliver Coppard was Labour’s general election candidate in Sheffield Hallam in 2015.