Labour candidates, with their bright red rosettes, have been seen on the streets in recent weeks – Covid guidelines permitting – to begin what everyone acknowledges to be one of the strangest election campaigns in modern times.
Social distancing has precluded mass canvasses, concern about spreading infection has limited person-to-person contact. Many conversations instead have taken place by phone. Door-to-door canvassing has only recently begun in some areas.
The first election address is being delivered, not by teams of Labour activists as in the past, but by a professional delivery firm that is, of course, Covid-secure.
There are 21 candidates standing for Labour in the 16 Hastings & St Leonards wards and eight county divisions (comprising two wards each). And this year Labour is fielding its most diverse range of candidates ever.
These candidates include young women, born and raised in Hastings. People from ethnic minority backgrounds. Those with experience of prejudice, others who know what it’s like to be homeless and unemployed.
It’s a Facebook campaign!
Some are defending solid majorities for Labour, some are in very marginal – or heavily contested – seats, others are first-time candidates. None are taking these elections for granted. More than anything else, this is a Facebook campaign, with some candidates, particularly the newer ones, very active on the social media platform.
Stand-outs include a powerful video on women’s safety by St Helens candidate Antonia Berelson, shot in Alexandra Park, scene last year of a vicious sexual assault; and a humorous take on the town’s pothole problem from Silverhill and St Helens’ candidate Margi O’Callaghan.
The council’s Labour leader, Kim Forward, is not standing this time; her turn will come next year. She took over just as the pandemic broke and, along with her team and officials, acted fast to coordinate the efforts of volunteers in a Community Hub. It was challenging and hard round-the-clock work to begin with, she says, keeping essential services going and distributing government support grants as quickly as possible.
We’re guided by our socialist values: a commitment to creating fairer, more equal society
But this is only part of the story. What drives Kim and her fellow Labour councillors is their socialist values: a commitment to a fairer, more equal society. And this is spelt out in the party’s online election manifesto; there are also details on the website of each candidate.
Labour will be emphasising in the campaign some significant successes, such as ridding the town of many rogue landlords and working with housing associations to create more affordable social housing.
Street cleaning was brought ‘in house’ with the creation of a Direct Service Organisation (DSO) removing fly-tips much more promptly, making it more responsive, improving cleanliness levels across the borough, on the seafront, in the town centre, and in residential areas, as well as making it much easier to report problems through the My Hastings reporting system on the council’s website.
‘Exempting the very poorest from council tax has been so important over the last year’
Former leader Peter Chowney says of the DSO: “It’s the thing I get the most complimentary emails about from local people. For me, it’s our greatest achievement, along with being one of a tiny number of councils who have retained 100% council tax support for those on out-of-work benefits, which has been so important over the last year.”
Labour can also justly claim to have done its best to alleviate massive cuts to its budget though income from commercial property purchases, including the new Aldi supermarket in Bexhill Road. As well as exempting the very poorest from council tax, it has provided good temporary housing for homeless families.
Despite some setbacks along the way, Labour is ambitious for the future of Hastings, such as its plans to attract investment in better sports and leisure facilities.
‘Labour is on your side’ is the party’s message to voters, along with ‘giving Hastings & St Leonards a voice’ for those standing for the currently Tory-controlled East Sussex County Council.