Aisha Iqbal: Leeds local election battle was a wake-up call for both Labour and the Tories

4 May 2018. Local elections vote counting for Leeds at First Direct Arena.  PIC: Mark Bickerdike
4 May 2018. Local elections vote counting for Leeds at First Direct Arena. PIC: Mark Bickerdike
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So, after a long and at times brutal local election campaign, it’s back to business at Leeds Civic Hall this week.

And while, on the surface, not much has changed, the devil is in the detail.

Labour, despite losing several seats, made vital gains in other areas and has increased its overall majority by six to 23.

The Tories, too, have improved their numbers by three, making stunning gains in Pudsey and Horsforth, but suffering a painful defeat in Calverley and Farsley.

It’s left to the Lib Dems and the Greens to bear the brunt of voters’ ire.

Or do I mean voters’ apathy? The overall turnout actually went DOWN by a tenth of a percentage point. Not a huge amount, but still a downward trend, which is disappointing.

I think, however, that the real heroes of democracy in this campaign - regardless of the result - are the many independent candidates who took the fight directly to the heart of power in our city.

It wasn’t always a clean fight - politics never is - but it certainly delivered a message to the city’s decision-makers, and perhaps more importantly, to all the main political parties, that they cannot, must not, take their core voters for granted.

Kudos has to go to former cabinet chief Mark Dobson, who delivered a staggering result in the Garforth ward to “wipe out” in his own words his former party Labour’s presence there.

It was an ill-tempered and at times nasty fight on both sides - all the main players know it and observers know it - but boy did it deliver a killer punch.

Hell hath no fury like a councillor scorned, and Dobson’s victory speech - like his campaign - was a real stinger.

It is through sheer will that he managed to mobilise almost 50 per cent of the electorate - the highest turnout in the city by far - to come out and cast a vote. That is no mean feat, and has to be applauded.

Another riveting battle was in Beeston and Holbeck, where independent candidates - campaigning heavily against the prostitution ‘managed zone’ in Holbeck - secured almost 4,000 votes between them.

They failed to win a seat, but the sheer strength of numbers of people who wanted an alternative to the main parties speaks volumes.

Had the independents fielded one candidate rather than three, they may have had a better chance of winning a seat, as their vote will have been split to some extent.

So it was political naivete, it seems, rather than a passionate protection of the status quo by voters, which impacted the final result.

Then again, with everyone having three votes this year, it might not be the only factor.

However, again, credit must be given to those who have stood up to fight for their community.

This is real grass roots democracy in action, and I personally welcome that.

As council gets back to business this week, there will a host of new faces in the chamber and committee rooms.

New faces bring with them new hope.

I congratulate everyone who has secured a seat in our city’s cherished democratic centre, and I hope they will do the best by it and by the people who gifted it to them.

It should be an interesting year ahead, with a younger, more diverse, more gender balanced council now than ever before, it seems.

But the election campaign has been a lesson for all of us.

A lesson in successful mobilisation (with or without the backing of a big party machine); a lesson in the power of individual passions to sway voters; and a lesson against complacency at the top.

This Leeds local election, more so than any other in recent years that I have covered, is a wake up call to the powers that be, and specifically to the two main parties.

People do want to keep their faith in you and the principles you espouse. But they also want you to work harder, faster, with complete integrity - and with tangible results.

So, new councillors, please take your seats - and let’s get this show on the road.

IT’S AU REVOIR FROM ME...

As a new chapter begins at Leeds Civic Hall, I’m also off on a little adventure of my own.

I’m bidding adieu to Leeds - and to this column - for a few months while I go off to Birmingham on an attachment.

So I’d like to wish everyone a glorious summer, and plead with our friends at Leeds Civic Hall not to let the heat - both inside and outside the corridors of power - get to them.

I know you are a bunch of hotheads at the best of times! But keep cool - and see you in August.

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