What are Labour councils for?

by Kevin Meagher

Socialism, Herbert Morrison once helpfully summarised, is what the Labour party does. A partial assessment to be sure, but is there a more reliable compass for what Labour politicians in office should find themselves doing?

In a few short weeks, local authorities up and down the country will go red as voters give their verdict on 12 months of dismal Tory-Lib Dem cutbacks and recession. But what, when faced with reducing expenditure by a quarter, will Labour councils offer by way of a response?

Labour today launches its campaign for those elections with a blizzard of statistics and weblinks playing out the familiar annual ritual of showing that Labour councils are better value than Tory ones. The Tories will, naturally enough, produce rival spreadsheets next week showing the reverse. Plus ca change.

To accompany the usual political riffs, the party has also published a document entitled: Labour: Your voice in tough times. It suggests that: “…every Labour councillor you elect will be your community’s first line of defence against the damage being done by a Conservative-led government and its Liberal Democrat allies”.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, in lashing the Tories and Lib Dems to the mainsail on cuts. But of greater importance is what those running our local councils will actually do for their communities. Especially when their backs are against the wall.

I offer three modest suggestions for what Labour councils should stand for in an age of hard decisions and impossible ones: social mobility, economic opportunity and health inequalities.

Familiar enough politicalspeak, perhaps, but this trio contain valuable reference points amid the political and economic turbulence. In short, if a policy is not promoting the first two and reducing the third, then it is not worth pursuing.

Take public libraries. Labour-controlled Manchester plans to close five of them. Underuse and the cost of maintaining old buildings are cited as justification. But does losing a public library make social mobility more likely or less likely?

An unfair example, perhaps, given that government cuts are skewed towards poorer northern boroughs and away from richer southern ones (neighbouring Salford is suffering a £102 reduction in spending per head of population, while the burghers of prosperous Wokingham fall back by a bargain £4.58).

The question remains: where are Labour’s red lines? What will the party simply not countenance, come hell or high water?

It used to be simpler to answer. In the 1980s Labour councils expended political energy and financial capital fending off compulsory competitive tendering and protecting council jobs as best they could. A generation later it is not enough to think in terms of emptying bins, running schools, painting road markings and maintaining giant works departments.

Socialism is not what Labour councils find themselves doing on any particular day. Neither is it measured by a headcount of local government employees. It might, however, be found in leveraging the heft of local authorities in order to transform communities.

Promoting economic opportunity should be as important to councils as running schools. Yet do most council leaders know the top ten employers in their borough? Which councils have their own skills strategy?

Amid the 1294 statutory duties placed on local authorities, there is a new “power of general competence”, part of the government’s localism-with-no-cash prospectus. Nevertheless, Labour should embrace the extra freedom of manoeuvre and reframe the concept of what councils do.

Take public health. Local authorities are set to be given a leading role in promoting public health and reducing the scandalous health inequalities that leave a ten-year gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest parts of our big cities. Those who suffer the worst health are the same people who have the least social mobility and the fewest economic opportunities.

As a great reforming figure in local government himself, Morrison would recognise the dilemmas his successors face in running local authorities in 2011. The job of being a good council leader is harder than ever. The extra expectations on Labour council leaders make it a harder job still.

But it is a worthwhile role. Morrison would caution, however, that minding the shop in politics is not enough. Labour councillors have a real opportunity to show that, locally, the party has a clear sense of mission when it takes power (neo-municipal socialism anyone?) That amid the cuts there is still an agenda, a lodestar guiding difficult decisions.

Unlike their Parliamentary counterparts, the army of new Labour councillors who will be elected on 5th May will take the reins of power and make actual decisions. They are Labour’s first real response to the question the party is finding so hard to answer at a national level: “So what would you do then”?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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7 Responses to “What are Labour councils for?”

  1. iain ker says:

    “There’s nothing wrong, of course, in lashing the Tories and Lib Dems to the mainsail on cuts.’

    I think the metaphor you were reaching for is, ‘lash to the mast’; which doesn’t mean what you apparently think it means either.

    Asociate Editor? – sweet Jesus.

    I think your educayshun was pretty meagher as well.

  2. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    A good start, although I’d suggest another point of focus – probably bigger than health inequality and certainly more noticeable in the short-term than promoting social mobility – is community-building.

    That means shared facilities, keeping crime (and the fear of crime) low, action to connect communities and help for community groups.

    We need to make people proud to live in their communities, whatever their problems, and a big part of that is making them feel that they have an investment there – that the streets are clean, they aren’t scared of the kids from three doors down and they feel the council listens to their concerns and acts quickly if something is going wrong in the area.

    I’d also add that we need to consider how the message could be adapted to councils where we can’t win control this year – both all-out district councils where we need a 1994-style result to get to NOC and councils that elect by thirds where we’re too far back to take control before 2012 or 2013. Here we won’t have control of the council, so we probably need to focus more on oversight and on things we can offer specific wards.

  3. Henrik says:

    Perhaps if Labour councils ceased cutting popular and useful community services and blaming central government for this – and took a long, hard look at the back room services and non-jobs they’re protecting instead – it might be an easier sell for them? Just asking.

  4. iain ker says:

    Henrik, don’t be ridiculous.

    My sister’s council, a place so tiny you’ve never heard of it, recently handed over a cheque to one of the big Management Consultancy firms for just shy of a million quid.

    I believe the BBC are planning a weep-piece for next week’s The One Show in which they’ll be sending a camera crew into the head-office of one of the big Consultancy firms to discuss the likely effects of the coots (3% real by 2014/15 big whup) on their business.

    Actually, no, I don’t believe that at all.

  5. Kiera Hardie says:

    I’ve just seen the story about the labour councillor in Camden – a wealthy person who can afford £14k a year in school fees – who has moved into a housing association flat in Covent Garden, as a result of a poor family being evicted.

    She expressed no shame about this when confronted by the press.

    That such a person can hold office as a cabinet member in a labour council shows that for all the stats and evidence that we are dong a good job and could do better if more of us were elected, we are weak when it comes to the basic issue – do we mean what we say?

    I’ve been in the Labour Party since 1983 and this has made me angrier than any other stupid thing we’ve done this year, so far.

    No wonder people – voters – are cynical. Nothing will be done by the Labour party about this councillor. This sort of thing just confirms for lots of people who ought to be voting for and joining us that we are part of the problem, not the solution.

  6. Henrik says:

    @iain: I wouldn’t disagree that local councils generally are laughably cavalier with other folk’s money – my own recently invested nineteen grand in having a magician in to run some sort of staff training for council staff.

    It does seem to me, though, that Labour-dominated councils are making significant efforts to implement cuts where they will be obvious and impactful on the electorate for political reasons, rather than looking for general efficiency savings and backroom drawdowns.

    One of my more shameful secrets is that I actually work as a consultant and have never failed to save government clients far more than I cost them.

  7. Roger says:


    If you read this in the press is it actually true?

    The enemy media lie every day about everything so we need something more than ‘I read this in the press’.

    A link or just an indication of where and when you read it would help us check for ourselves.

    And if it is true then we really do need to apply that old rule about ‘bringing the party into disrepute’ – although given the behaviour of many Labour MPs and more ex-ministers than I can name there is going to be a pretty long queue for her to join.

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