It will come as no great surprise to many that the town of Redhill, a conurbation of 60,000 people located in deepest Surrey and connected to the stockbroker town of Reigate, has no elected Labour councillors at present. Certainly if parliamentary election results are anything to go by – after all, the people of Surrey have never elected a Labour MP.
Yet our current weakness in Redhill, and on the Reigate and Banstead Borough Council as a whole, should be a surprise, if only because it was not the case until very recently. Indeed, in 1996 Labour had 16 councillors and controlled the council, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, for three years. Since 2000, however, the party’s fortunes have deteriorated dramatically and in 2011 we lost our last remaining council seat.
The Redhill East and West wards were the foundation of Labour’s former local strength. Between 1970 and 2000, these marginal Labour-Tory seats consistently returned a full slate of Labour councillors due to the campaigning efforts of our local activists. This success was translated into victories in Redhill in Surrey County Council elections, with our last Redhill county representative only losing their seat in 2006.
As elsewhere in the country, the collapse of the party in local government in our part of Surrey owed a lot to the unpopularity of the last Labour government. It is also, however, the result of other long-term problems that are a concern to all political parties. Membership has declined, the activist base shrunk, the few new members that have joined are inactive. Young members in particular are reluctant to participate. Our local party now comprises only a dozen or so active members, most of whom have served the party their entire adult lives. Some of whom, for the want of a new generation to assume the mantle, would like to spend a little more time enjoying their retirement than running a local party.
As a result, we struggle to find enough candidates to contest every seat, and campaigning is restricted to two or three target wards only. As a consequence the Redhill East ward has not been properly canvassed in seven years and the Green party has moved in to fill the gap. The first Green councillor was elected in 2010 and another was elected last year.
Redhill is a town like most others. It has pockets of real poverty (it is the poorest town in the borough) and unemployment is comparatively high. It is also home to urban, educated, broadsheet-reading, middle-class professionals, first-time home buyers and an increasingly young and mobile workforce. In short, Redhill is populated by exactly the types of people Labour will need to win back nationally if we are to return to power. But our problem is not a lack of potential support but a lack of manpower.
This is why Progress’ Third Place First campaign to ensure that there are no no-go areas for Labour is so important. The less presence the party has in our local communities, the harder it will be for the party in Westminster to rebuild electoral support. The support of Progress for candidates in seemingly no-hope areas can also energise and enthuse the jaded memberships of small CLPs in unfashionable blue-rinse constituencies, where every election is an uphill struggle. I for one am delighted that Progress have offered me their support in my bid to see Labour regain a foothold in the Redhill East ward by planning a campaigning day on 24 March 24.
In the future I hope the party can find better ways to organise across constituency and county lines so we can best mobilise our activist base to fight campaigns and win elections across all regions and councils in the UK where strength on the ground is thin. First things first, however: I sincerely hope those of you that have taken the time to read this article will join Progress and myself on 24 March to help campaign for Labour in Redhill.
This article was first published on Progress Online. Sign up now to come along and campaign for Rhys and turn Redhill red again
Rhys Williams is Labour candidate for Redhill East and a member of Progress