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.