In the cacophony of post mortems of Labour’s defeat, the role of Labour councils is being overlooked or at least understated.
I think that a significant contributor to the erosion of Labour’s base has been councils which cut services, do the bidding of developers, and are generally bureaucratic, unresponsive and inaccessible to working-class people. They are seen as the establishment and are the first political institution that people see affecting their lives negatively.
This has contributed to the alienation of Labour from working-class communities, to a loss of the idea that by electing Labour, you put the local working class into power. I reflected on this on 2 January, when I sat in my council’s Customer Service Centre. It does a good job, but when did I become a “customer” of my local Labour council?
Unfortunately, the left leadership of the Labour party did not tackle the inadequacy and managerialism of Labour in local government effectively over its four years in post. Local government has remained largely unchanged. Labour activists have found themselves campaigning against their “own” councils: for example in Leeds, against the Council’s eviction of tenants and support for airport expansion.
Many Labour councils have done one or more of the following:
- collaborating with developers to the detriment of genuinely affordable public housing
- joining in the disturbing and inhuman trend towards driving out and criminalising homeless people
- acting like private-sector employers, paying fat-cat salaries to senior managers while keeping low pay and insecure conditions for council workers
- failing to campaign effectively against the Tory funding cuts, but instead passing on those cuts to residents.
The throttling of Labour Party democracy over recent decades has left councils unaccountable to the local labour movement. For example, when both CLPs in my borough voted for the Labour council to not cut Special Education Needs and Disabilities funding, it did so regardless.The “Local Campaign Forums” are not effective forums for local campaigning.
Local councils are tied up by Tory laws against them doing many of the things that we would want them to. The Tories knew what they were doing in the 1980s when they passed legislation to shackle two bastions of working-class power: trade unions and local government. However, councils can do more within the law than many of them do, and they can help build a movement that becomes ready to take on the law.
As we face five years of Tory attacks, and starting as we are from defeat and demoralisation, I think we can help to rebuild by calling on Labour councils to become centres of resistance as well as providers of services. Councils designating their areas ‘sanctuary cities’ (or ‘sanctuary boroughs’) that welcome refugees and migrants is a useful step in the right direction.
Further measures could include:
- making council facilities e.g. meeting rooms, available to local campaigns, trade unions, welfare projects and residents’ groups
- refusing to collaborate with immigration checks
- providing advice, representation and support to vulnerable people such as migrants and homeless people
- not installing anti-homeless architecture, e.g. spikes
- being accountable to the local labour movement (reforming the Local Campaign Forum structure)
- ending fat-cat CEO posts, scrapping directly-elected Mayors and the Cabinet system
- not increasing council tax or rents (or, similarly, reducing relief for the low-paid)
- ... and of course, not making cuts.
While efforts have been made to get more left-wingers elected as Labour councillors, this has too often been without much discussion on what it means to be a left-wing councillor or what strategy Labour and its left will pursue.
I hope this article can help such a discussion take place.
Corbyn and local government
Under Corbyn, Labour has done virtually nothing to campaign against council cuts, and still less for their reversal.
Oddly, in so far as any force beyond the left of which Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty are part has made noise about this, it is right-wing Labour council leaders.
After years of saying nothing was possible, in 2018 the council leaders launched an initiative called “Breaking Point”, with clear demands for an immediate end to cuts, £4bn in emergency funding, and restoration of 2010 funding levels within five years. Unfortunately, Breaking Point was barely a campaign.
Instead of jumping on this to amplify the noise and build a real fight, the leadership kept quiet, refused to demand the reversal of all cuts, and allowed its spokespeople to hint ambiguously in the press that a Labour government would not do this.
Campaigning proposals agreed at various levels, including the national and London regional conferences, produced – nothing.
Shortly after the 2019 election was called, 120 Labour council leaders and mayors wrote to the party pressing for a clear commitment on reversing cuts. Party local government spokesperson Andrew Gwynne replied with evasive waffle.
And then, bizarrely, there was the demand, in the manifesto! Why on earth didn’t the leadership start arguing and campaigning for this in 2015, or at least 2018?