Bob Littlewood on prospects for Labour councils in the face of continuing austerity
At election time we talk about Labour Councils’ achievements rather than the effects of austerity in order convince people we make a difference. So often when we make cuts we present changes in too positive a light– transforming services, protecting the most vulnerable, efficiencies, etc. We DO make a difference, but too often it’s quite marginal. Local turnout does seem to indicate that there are many people who believe that local Councils don’t make a difference
Thatcher was determined to neuter socialist Councils through rate-capping and forcing Councils to outsource services, stopping the building of Council houses, the right to buy etc. and she abolished the GLC. Socialist Councils who defied the Government in the 1980s failed. The current government is determined to keep local Councils in their place, whether through cutting grants or using legislation/regulations to prevent a challenge to private interests– landlords, developers and profiteers providing public services.
In the new Labour era the pressure eased a little but the basic furniture of central/local relations remained the same. Indeed the statist insistence on performance indicators and targets for everything actually made things worse. It’s an unfortunate truth that a succession of Labour ministers with a responsibility for local government thought that they and their civil servants knew best and were there to control rather than enable Councils to decide what to do locally
And our failure on housing in particular was scandalous.
Outright resistance and acting illegally in the way that Lambeth and Liverpool tried in the 1980s isn’t back on the agenda. Instead we must hang our hopes on the election of a socialist Labour government and make changes within our Councils
So it isn’t surprising that local Labour is inward looking and on the back foot, given our approach to elections and the concentration of power in too few hands in so many Labour Councils
It’s possible that an intake of left Councillors in May might change this outlook. Enormous efforts have been made by Momentum and the Party’s left to select candidates for Council who want to be local change-makers and challenge local establishments to be more outward looking and confrontational, but there are good comrades who think that being on the Council won’t change anything. They are wrong. If we want to make real change we must have the right people in place
It’s just possible that local Council leaders from the left will emerge and want to co-operate as a group to take the fight to the Tories. Our national leadership must support them and encourage members to do likewise.
We need also to make a better job of encouraging groups with relevant single issues (e.g. disability, homelessness, mental health) to take action together. With us.
We do need rank and file Councillors to give full support. The concentration of power within Councils (Mayors, strong leaders and Cabinets not accountable to rank and file Councillors and the local party membership) is something which needs to be confronted. As long as elites call the shots countering austerity together will be a tall order
On a positive note, there are Labour Councils that are taking steps to be ready for the time when more resources and powers become available to them: Fairness Commissions which inform them in detail about inequalities; progressive procurement policies supporting local enterprise, including co-operatives (well done Preston); service provision in genuine co-production with users; wholly Council owned development companies, and of course the prospect of taking services back in-house when contracts expire
And there are many individual Councillors giving support to residents in difficulty and bringing the knowledge of this into what they say and do in the Town Hall
So there needs to be change at all levels.
Turnout this time will be higher where local parties have been focusing on the Council campaigning against Tory austerity. Those who voted for the first time in the general election because they were inspired by the message of hope will turn out where candidates are putting a very clear anti -austerity message.