General election could separate local and national politics and benefit Labour in Kent, councillor claims

PUBLISHED: 12:48 19 April 2017 | UPDATED: 12:48 19 April 2017

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Labour is looking to overtake Ukip and be the main party of opposition to the Conservatives on Kent County Council

Theresa May’s surprise decision to call a general election this week could have a positive knock-on effect on next month’s Kent County Council vote, a senior Labour figure has said.

The prime minister stunned the nation when she announced on Tuesday her intention to hold a public vote on June 8, in a bid to strengthen her mandate and negotiating power post-Brexit.

The subsequent fallout has, perhaps understably, massively overshadowed the upcoming county council elections, but separating national and local politics could be a boost for prospective Labour councillors pounding the streets in an effort to win crucial votes over the next fortnight.

Nationally, under the divisive leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s stock is seemingly at its lowest since the days of Michael Foot.

Mr Corbyn is being almost universally regarded as “unelectable”, and Mrs May was surely looking at his struggles and anticipating an opportunity to strengthen her majority when she made her decision this week.

Indeed, a host of Labour MPs declaring they will not seek re-election in seven weeks’ time, seemingly preferring to quit than face what they expect to be humiliation.

And while public perception of parties nationally will always inevitably have an impact on how people vote when they take to the polls, at whatever level of politics, the prospect of a general election just around the corner in which voters can make those strong political statements could help unblur those lines.

In Kent, Labour needs to send a strong message after falling behind Ukip as the main party of opposition to the Conservatives last time out in 2013.

As questions over the purpose of the purple party post-Brexit grow louder, it has an opportunity to make up some of the ground it lost four years ago, though the Liberal Democrats - which gained 1,000 new members within an hour of Mrs May’s announcement - will also be targeting that opposition role.

Roger Truelove is the deputy leader of the Labour group on KCC and told Kent News he was hopeful residents would recognise the quality of the local candidate as a priority when casting their vote.

“I was not truly surprised because the government were going to find the next couple of years very difficult with a slim majority so I think she was always going to go and try and strengthen that,” he said.

“But it’s disturbingly close to the county council elections and I’m not too sure what impact this week’s announcement will have on those.

“I would like to think people will appreciate county council elections are important for education, health, the environment and think ‘I ought to go and vote’.

“But there’s always a danger that national politics gets into local elections and people want to make a statement.

“Now they can do that on June 8 so hopefully they will separate the two.

“I’m not sure it affects our campaigning too much, but we may have to make it clear we’re calling about the local elections.

“Other than that, as far as we are concerned we’ve got a programme and that doesn’t change.”

Cllr Truelove has been campaigning in recent weeks to defend his Swale Central seat and drum up support for other candidates in the borough.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell was on the campaign trail in a visit to Gravesend earlier this month in which he pledged investment in communications and energy, echoing the sentiments of Mr Corbyn who suggested a £30bn package would be available for the south east if he won the keys to Number 10 when he visited Ramsgate at the end of last year.

Cllr Truelove said he appreciated the visit of Mr McDonnell, which drew strong crowds in the north of the county, he was cavassing for himself in Swale at the time.

He admits a lot of his potential votes will be borne out of local familiarity with residents who have elected him before, rather than his status as a Labour candidate.

However, with the thorny issue of Britain’s membership with the European Union now resolved, Cllr Truelove says it has opened the door for a better, friendlier discussion about a range of other local issues.

“Recently I’ve found people more pleasant than in recent years,” he said.

“They don’t keep saying ‘all you politicians are rubbish’.

“There’s definitely been a more friendly response and a greater willingness to talk about more than just Europe which is refreshing.

“It used to be really one-dimensional politics.”

Cllr Truelove told us earlier in the year his party were campaigning to win, but had to be realistic about its prospects.

He said it was targeting coastal areas, with the Tories having a seemingly-immovable stranglehold on some seats in the west of the county.

But as for the best of the rest, there is a growing cross-party consensus that Ukip will not repeat its surprising feat of 2013 having achieved its major aim of Brexit, and will see its representation heavily slashed on May 4.

Conservative MP for South Thanet Craig Mackinlay told us earlier in the month he wouldn’t be surprised if there was “an absolute wipeout” of Ukip seats on the council.

Liberal Democrat MEP for the south east Catherine Bearder admitted such as a scenario “would give me a lot of pleasure” and sensed an opportunity for her party to stake a claim in its place.

Labour currently has 12 councillors representing the party at County Hall, compared to Ukip’s 14 and seven for the Lib Dems.

Cllr Truelove agreed that Ukip’s seats were up for grabs and was confident Labour would end the election with a strong representation on KCC.

“We are trying to win, of course we are, but what Kent needs is a good opposition and I think people will get that with Labour,” he said.

“If we are not that party of opposition it will be the Lib Dems because Ukip has completely fallen by the wayside.

“But really I can’t see the Lib Dems picking more than one or two seats across the county.”

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