Labour Councillors and Local Accountability

Except for a tiny few cases, all elected representatives of the Labour Party are only where they are because they enjoy the red rosette as lent by local members.

There is something deeply solemn, if not magical, when you are selected by other local Labour Party members to represent them. By this, it is the notion that because of the collective decision of your peers, you are suddenly elevated – regardless of your individual circumstance, merit or even aptitude – to a position of relative privilege and responsibility.

This sense of solemnity is deepened by the fact that it is the same members who will then campaign hard to get you elected. It would therefore be uncontroversial to say that all elected representatives of the Labour Party, whether they are a local councillor or the party leader, owe their powers to the trust, goodwill and commitment of grassroots members.

When one has these facts in mind, to be selected and then elected are immense honours which should not only be treasured greatly, but also deeply humbling. It therefore comes as a great disappointment to hear that some have recently come out to argue against and oppose proposals submitted to the Labour Party’s democracy review, which would allow local members the opportunity to select the leaders of their local Labour Group, and therefore, potentially the local council leaders of the same local area. The most prominent critics of the proposal have been Labour First, who have organised a petition criticising the plans. Moreover, Cllr Nick Forbes, head of the Local Government Association’s Labour Group, recently wrote for The Guardian suggesting that the “idea is unworkable”.

The general thrust of their arguments against the proposals are misguided at best, and even at times downright paternalistic and patronising. Labour First argues that “the proposal will inevitably lead to factionalism in local politics”, suggesting that members are akin to a herd of wild beasts who can be easily manipulated and thus whose judgement cannot be trusted. Conversely, such criticisms seem to imply that councillors are somehow more deserving of the franchise, suggesting somehow that they are more informed, more rational and more level-headed; Cllr Forbes argues that the proposal “risks turning every council decision into a local membership referendum”.

Whilst there is no doubt that councillors are more privy to the technical details of their local authority, there is nothing to suggest that their positions alone should afford them a unique franchise. After all, it is worth reinforcing again that except perhaps for a tiny few cases, all elected representatives of the Labour Party are only where they are because they enjoy the red rosette as lent by local members, rather than any unique power which they individually possess.

Perhaps more peculiarly, it is interesting that councillors who are arguing against extending more democracy to members are also the same councillors who are wholly reliant on the wisdom of the same members who placed them there in the first place. It is almost a microcosm of Ha-Joon Chang’s observation in Kicking Away the Ladder, which suggests that countries, once they have developed, ‘kick away the ladder’ with which they have used to climb to the top. As a random thought experiment, it would be a very curious thing to know whether any councillor who is opposed to such a proposal would clearly and explicitly express their position to members at their reselection meeting.

It should be noted that the initial stages of this debate is particularly curious in that those opposed to the election of local Labour Group leaders by local members do not even take the first principle of empowering grassroots members as a good in itself. Admittedly, the practical details are currently limited: there is no indication of whether such elections would be annual, four-yearly, or when a vacancy arises; how candidates would secure a place on a shortlist; or what mechanism could be used to remove them from their post.

Nevertheless, it is telling that such a suggestion of strengthening broad-based democracy within the party is swiftly dismissed outright as likely illegal and unworkable, rather than as posing a legitimate set of questions and exciting challenges which ought to be constructively engaged with. It should of course be noted that such anti-democratic sentiments are by no means new, and in fact draw from a historic, ideological lineage. For example, John Goodwin, a former Member of Parliament for Haslemere, argued in the middle of the seventeenth century:

If the people be incapable in themselves of the things of their peace, it is an act of so much the more goodness and mercy in those who, being fully capable of them, will engage themselves accordingly to make provision for them. It is a deed of charity and Christianity, to save the life of a lunatic or distracted person even against his will. Besides, it is a ruled case amongst wise men, ‘that if a people be depraved and corrupt, so as to confer places of power and trust upon wicked and undeserving men, they forfeit their power in this behalf unto those that are good, though but a few.’

It is disturbing that similar attitudes, though more euphemistically expressed these days, apparently still persist among so many of Labour’s elected representatives. In their view, Labour Group leaders, being elected by their fellow councillors, are completely accountable to their elected peers – and for them, this alone is sufficient. Councillors in turn are accountable to their members, and therefore, one can dismiss the need for the democracy review’s proposal. However, this argument shows its weakness when one considers a council leader’s powers of patronage: appointing not only cabinet members, but also committee positions. These simultaneously top-down and bottom-up pressure imbalances are awkward and may even be potentially dangerous, but would be greatly lessened if leaders are made directly accountable to members. Cllr Forbes argues that:

councillors need to be able to come together to face up to the realities of the sometimes complex and difficult decisions they have to make, secure in the knowledge that they will be backed to the hilt by the party for the challenging job they do.

But to earn that backing, local Labour groups must be made more properly accountable and responsive to rank-and-file party members. But of course, nobody should flatter themselves that these proposals are particularly groundbreaking in themselves. Though we can debate the mechanisms, in essence, it differs little at its heart from the existing selection of mayoral candidates up and down the country. To say this against our own article: ‘we have been doing this for years’.

As Tony Benn observed, there is never a final victory for democracy, and it is always a struggle which must be taken up time and time again. Indeed, it is this concept of democratic control which could give ordinary people – who would otherwise only be able to formally express themselves through voting once every few years – a more complete relationship with their representatives. This democratic essence is a vital property which, rather than being criticised and discouraged, should be revered and fostered.


Jumbo Chan (@JumboChan)

Jumbo Chan is a Labour councillor for Kensal Green ward, Brent.

Paul William Fleming (@paulwfleming)

Paul William Fleming is a Labour councillor for Faraday ward, Southwark.