‘Better a Dented Shield’? The Left and Labour Councils

It’s become something of a cliché to say that Momentum and the Left within the Labour Party have not done enough to think about local government and, in particular, about Labour councils and councillors.

It’s become something of a cliché to say that Momentum and the Left within the Labour Party have not done enough to think about local government and, in particular, about Labour councils and councillors. But this is not without good reason. As many others have pointed out, Labour is already in power in local government across the country, and councils in England are responsible for just over a fifth of all public spending.

Despite the Left’s increasing success within the Party’s structures and its control of the leadership, many councils remain under the sway of what Aditya Chakrabortty has dubbed ‘zombie Blairites’. In truth, most Labour councils are controlled by people (usually men) who are within a much older tradition of nervous municipal Labourism.

With selections for the 2018 local elections underway in many areas, and as manifestos begin to be drawn up, the time is ripe for a deeper consideration of the relationship between the Left and Labour councils. That’s what we tried to do in our most recent meeting of the Croydon Left Reading Group, and I hope that I can set out here some of the points and arguments which emerged - although, it goes without saying, these are only my interpretations and not representative of the views of all participants.

The elephant in the room when we talk about local government is the sheer extent of the cuts since 2010. When we are presented with questions about deteriorating or retreating services on the doorstep, we are advised to answer by pointing the finger at the reductions in spending imposed by central government. That’s clearly sound advice, as councillors try to make the best of an increasingly bad situation.

When the cuts began in 2010, there was a very visible debate on the Left about how to respond. A lot of people, especially those outside the Labour Party, advocated refusing to implement the cuts- often pointing to the examples of Liverpool and Lambeth in the 1980s as models of how councillors can resist.

For those who remained within the Labour Party, and especially for left-wing councillors, the counter-argument was perhaps best summarised by Paul Cotterill (a West Lancashire councillor and Labour Representation Committee member) in 2011: the ‘martyrdom’ of left-wing councillors is likely to be even less effective than before, borrowing powers are tightly monitored by the Section 151 or Chief Financial Officer (who will make the cuts if councillors refuse), and councillors do important work unrelated to budget-setting which would be undermined if they resigned.

These arguments are basically correct but in certain respects they are also a little unfair, setting up an illegal-budget-setting anti-cuts strawman which can be easily torn down. Whilst many on the Left romanticise Lambeth and Liverpool more for the heroism of facing the surcharge than for the manoeuvres which got them to that situation, few on the Left advocate that councils set nakedly illegal budgets. In the 1980s, there was a prolonged legal struggle prior to the rate-capping rebellion, whereby councils sought to bend the rules to avoid making cutbacks; indeed, Ted Knight claimed that it was only dodgy financial wrangling by the courts which presented Lambeth as making a loss in the final year and which therefore justified the surcharge.

Even the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, the most vocal supporters of an anti-cuts position within local government, propose a number of potentially legal budget-setting strategies which would avoid the council being taken over by agents of the central government. Whilst acknowledging that it is very difficult to determine exactly what would constitute an illegal budget, and pointing out that “there is no clever ‘legal tactic’ that will avoid the need for struggle”, they argue “it is possible to produce ‘legally balanced’ budgets that avoid an immediate legal confrontation, avoid cuts in the short term, and provide a breathing space to build the struggle.”

This might be achieved in some places by accessing the reserves or limiting the amounts paid into them. In others, especially where large reserves are not available, it could mean ensuring that wherever possible revenue expenditure is reclassified as capital spending which can be more readily borrowed for. Councils could also look to stretch the definition of “prudential”, arguing that a Labour government is foreseeable and even imminent and that their spending plans (including predictions of future grants and levels of interest) should take into account that possibility. Paul Cotterill suggested another option in a subsequent article to the one discussed above: describing staffing costs as open to negotiation in the budget, whilst agreeing with the unions to win a substantially better position after the budget has been passed.

Obviously, a lot of these strategies (which are ultimately only about buying time until the building of a mass campaign and/or the election of a Labour government nationally) require a sympathetic Chief Financial Officer. That’s such a major obstacle that it really has to be a priority for any left-wing Labour council to ensure that senior officers are brave enough to support measures taken in defence of their constituents. It’s also important to remember a rule change introduced at conference last year means that councillors face expulsion if they vote against legal budgets; these are options which can be explored and fought for within the Labour Group, but ultimately councillors will face little option except to support the budget which is put forward.

That said, the most important thing is that Labour councils and councillors work to bring down this fragile Tory government. The specifics of budget-setting need to be viewed in light of how they affect this campaign; simply using the reserves isn’t enough, especially if it isn’t accompanied by an attempt to rein in excessive spending on ceremonial gumpf and cabinet member pay which only serves to distance the council from its constituents. They should however not be afraid to spend on public relations campaigns which pin the blame on the government, perhaps building on the ground-breaking work of the Greater London Council in the 1980s. More importantly, they could do a lot more to support activists who oppose the cuts, lending support in establishing things like street stalls as well as providing campaigners with as much information as possible on council spending. A lot of councils have an attitude which is frankly unacceptable, seeking to hide the extent of the damage as if people won’t vote for a council which acknowledges things aren’t hunky-dory.

This is encapsulated by Mike Marqusee in his history of the rate-capping rebellion, commenting on the decision of councils to climb down from the policy of confrontation: “Initially it was posed as a stark choice of lesser evils. But gradually the ‘evil’ became celebrated as a virtue: the ‘reform’ of public services through privatisation and attacks on the workforce.” Whilst many of us are willing to accept the argument that Labour council cuts can be less destructive than Tory ones, it’s inescapable that too many Labour councils seem less interested in protecting (let alone organising) their constituents than in profiting from them; less the ‘dented shield’, more a knife in the back.

Again, not every Labour council is like Haringey. But far too many have close links with property developers, epitomised by the annual procession of council delegations heading to Cannes for the MIPIM property fair. In some places, speculators have formed close personal ties with senior councillors and may even be Labour members and donors. The Left must expose these ties where they exist, and call upon councils to take a hard stance against this insidious courtship. Perhaps a left-wing council could host a housing conference as an alternative to MIPIM, placing the needs of councils and their constituents over the interests of multinational developers and fun-seeking council delegations.

And, where councils are forced to make cuts, these should be presented for what they are - an attack on residents by the Tory government - and not celebrated as “efficiency savings”, “making sure people access the right services” (i.e. gatekeeping) or some variation on modern Lambeth’s ‘co-operative council’ (farming out important parts of the council, like the park service, to groups of volunteers).

It might be argued, perfectly sensibly, that to cast such a downer on the work of the council - that is, to openly admit to managing decline as a result of Tory cutbacks - might not necessarily be a vote-winner on its own. But it’s important to also recognise the number of positive initiatives which councils can implement without being prevented by budgetary constraints.

Some of these are included in the Local Government Association Labour Group’s ‘100 innovations by Labour in Power’: the Southampton ‘people’s panel’ of over 1200 residents which responds to regular short polls and is invited to participate in targeted workshops, adherence to UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter, or the establishment of landlord-licensing schemes (although much more could be done to connect these schemes to the needs of tenants, and to empower tenants to take advantage of them). It might be worth also exploring the Preston model, which redirects spending by the council and ‘place-based institutions’ towards local businesses and co-operatives - although it should be noted that Preston is running a £3m annual deficit which could be exhausted within two years.

A lot might also be learned from the examples of the GLC and the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ on how Labour councils can engage with community groups and campaigns as well as improve conditions for their own employees, taking an active role in tackling sexism and racism or agitating for peace.

The work of Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, investigating and opposing gatekeeping practices which prevent vulnerable people from accessing the help that they need, should also be taken up by left-wing Labour activists. We have the resources to find out whether these problems exist in our areas and, where they do, we should be putting pressure on our councils to change that. Although it does form part of a wider gentrifying strategy, there isn’t really any reason that councils couldn’t yield to sustained pressure to end gatekeeping - these are abuses which are relatively easy to solve and which wouldn’t necessarily require any additional spending.

In both campaigning against council cuts and pushing for change on other fronts, it is clear that Labour councils need to engage openly with a much wider range of activists and community organisations. There are pitfalls: the 1980s ‘New Left’ councils tended to privilege the best organised groups, and didn’t do enough to appeal to the majority of residents. Existing community groups, and especially resident associations, are dominated by exactly who you would expect: middle-aged or retired, middle-class white homeowners who don’t want house prices to fall. The most marginalised groups, meanwhile, very often tend to be the most atomised.

But we don’t have to just accept that situation. Councils should take an active role in establishing better community organisations where they do not exist. A prominent example would be a Tenants’ Union to bolster work around landlord licensing and against letting fees, and providing a counter-balance to unrepresentative resident associations.

An additional advantage to this emphasis, however, is that it provides the opportunity to shift our focus from Labour councils to left-wing councillors. In most places, it will be some time before the Left is in a position to win control of councils, or even to establish an organised opposition - as occurred in Lambeth between 1974 and 1978, when Ted Knight and 13 other councillors were able to form a ‘shadow cabinet’ - especially without the relaxation of Labour Group discipline or the return of some variety of committee system.

Yet establishing radical community groups is something that left-wing councillors can do without comprising a majority of the Labour Group - indeed, they might be able to do it without Labour even controlling the council. A lot of areas have community ward budgets; in Croydon, it’s £12000 per ward and split between the councillors. These can’t be used for ‘political’ purposes, and are more conventionally used for things like planting trees or holding street parties, but I really see little reason why it wouldn’t be possible for a left-wing councillor to use their ward budget to support, say, a tenant association or migrant support group. Those aren’t openly ‘political’, but they clearly have political implications - just as supporting most resident associations has political implications in favour of homeowners.

In contrast to the gloomy outlook of some on the Left when it comes to local government, it’s clear that we actually have quite a lot of room for manoeuvre. Whether it’s opposing the cuts, implementing concrete improvements or supporting community organising, there is a lot that can be achieved if activists are willing to exert the pressure. There are two main dangers: either the Left ignores local government in favour of a single-minded focus on the trials and tribulations of Jeremy Corbyn or it acquiesces and subordinates itself to the whims of those currently in control, limiting its ambition to the selection of Momentum-supporting councillors in fundamentally unchanged councils.

But those aren’t the only options. The tremendous successes of the general election have given the Left enormous prestige within local parties, and Momentum activists are now consistently out-organising those of the Right. In one hand we have the dented shield, yes, but in the other we have a weapon: we have to be prepared to fight.


Daniel Frost (@d_j_frost)

Dan is a UCU member, and studying towards a PhD in the history of left-wing activism in Croydon at the University of Reading.