Down but not out and still around to keep on fighting

Joe Cullinane explains why Labour lost but is proud of its achievements in North Ayrshire.

For five and half a years, we were Scotland’s municipal socialists, putting together one of the most ambitious political programmes in Britain with a large expansion in council housing, delivering council-owned renewable energy and democratising our economy through Community Wealth Building (CWB). Now, we fight for those policies from opposition. The popular Scottish election and polling blog, Ballot Box Scotland, described it as a ‘peculiar result’. It was disappointing not just for us in the Labour Party in North Ayrshire but also to the wider left who offered their support to our campaign.

But we in North Ayrshire Labour are not despondent, and neither should anyone on the left. Far from being a rejection of our popular municipal socialist policies, local circumstances meant we fought a campaign against an electoral cocktail of unique boundary changes, retiring long-term incumbents and general apathy towards the transformative potential of local government.

Following the Scottish Parliament passing the Islands Act, North Ayrshire has become the only authority in Scotland to have a one-member ward – the Isle of Arran. To accommodate this change, whilst retaining the same number of councillors on the council, the Boundary Commission reshaped our mainland wards giving us three five-member wards – leaving us as the only authority in Scotland with five-member wards. These unique changes have favoured the Tories who experienced a drop in their vote share, like they did in most council areas, but gained three seats.

In the two wards Labour lost seats, we had long-term incumbents retiring. In both our vote share fell considerably, despite strong local campaigns, with the loss of the incumbent’s personal vote. If we had retained both seats, the result would have been the same as 2017 – Labour tied on seats with the SNP. In many respects, these are circumstances outwith our control. But there are important electoral lessons for the left too from our result.

Whilst our transformative political agenda was taking shape in the council chamber, there was not an organised left operation in our communities building support for the agenda. We ran an excellent election campaign, with some incredibly talented activists and organisers, but it started too late to really embed the progressive political message.

If we were going to retain power, it was always going to be fundamentally important for us to distinguish North Ayrshire Labour from Scottish Labour to win votes from those entrenched on both sides of the constitutional debate. We tried to do so with consistent branding and messaging across our leaflets, social media and in the local press and in some wards, combined with our door knocking efforts, it worked. But in others where the local circumstances were different – traditional Tory areas, strong independent candidates, the loss of our incumbents to retirement – it did not cut through enough. We canvassed too many independence supporters who said they supported our local policies but said they could not vote for Labour given the leaderships position on a second referendum, and although fewer in numbers there were staunch unionists who have shifted to the Tories in recent years.

The one ward where we did not have many of these problems was my own ward, Kilwinning. In Kilwinning we benefitted from the direct correlation between me being council leader and the council administration. And the result? Our vote share increased to 46%, the highest vote share for any party, in any ward, in North Ayrshire.

If I were to pass on one lesson to the left from our result, it is that having popular policies, whether in power or opposition, is not enough. There is no substitute for the hard work of long-term organising in our communities for transformative politics. That is deeply frustrating for me to accept because I come from a political tradition of organising, but tough lessons need to be learnt. Yes, a constant cycle of elections and then the Covid pandemic did not help, but in many respects being in power and having the ability to implement policies rather than having to organise for them becomes too easy.

I have always been one for self-reflection, and never shy to be self-critical. And the classic example for me on the difference between introducing a policy and organising for a policy is our Period Poverty initiative. Yes, we were the first Council in Britain to provide free sanitary products and received many plaudits for that. But to do that took one conversation with the Council’s Chief Executive to let them know that is what we wanted to do – we did not work with a group of young women to build a campaign for the policy. For me, that is what municipal socialists should do, whether in power or opposition.

And that is why we are not despondent about the result. Whilst recognising the need for a proper organising strategy, we did build institutional support for our policies within the council. For example, we do not expect CWB or the ambitious scale of our house building programme to be abandoned because we are no longer the administration. Just as importantly, we were the only party to publish a local manifesto in North Ayrshire and that gives us the political framework to continue implementing our political programme from opposition.

We have started that already with North Ayrshire Council agreeing to introduce a ‘Safe Home’ clause in its Licensing Statement, encouraging late-night licence holders to provide safe transport home for their staff.

The main difference is we will be working alongside our communities to implement our manifesto, with all nine members of the North Ayrshire Labour Group ready to act as community organisers in their wards. Taking that approach, and armed with the policies in our manifesto, we will continue setting the political agenda in North Ayrshire over the next five years.

Joe Cullinane is a Labour councillor for Kilwinning on North Ayrshire Council. He was the leader of the council from 2017 to 2022.