SW1 Labour is too busy pretending to be in the West Wing to value Labour’s local government leaders

by Theo Blackwell

It takes the polemicist Simon Jenkins to hit the nail on the head: our most talented leaders are outside of Westminster in local government – and ‘SW1 Labour’s’ love of centralism and conformity continues to freeze them out.  Labour has outstanding leaders. It’s a shame that they are all in the regions | Simon Jenkins. Not using too much hyperbole, he writes of the pre-election devo-Manc discussions:

“A significant moment in the downfall of Ed Miliband came in spring of last year after George Osborne’s “northern powerhouse” speech. Manchester’s boss, Richard Leese, was in the middle of negotiating with Osborne on his city’s devolution plan. It involved a major restructuring of public administration, possibly across all of local government. Miliband’s office wanted Leese to rubbish Osborne’s speech. The reply was reputedly unquotable in a family newspaper. Who did these snivelling Westminster teenagers think they were addressing?”

Without a doubt this was a political moment which revealed the lack of depth and hubris of team Ed – none of whom had local government experience and often gave the impression to council leaders that their interventions were just rude interruptions to their far more important ‘West Wing’ world of policy announcements.  Local government was seen a something to be managed rather than an opportunity to be harnessed as part of our story around credibility, innovation and growth.

Be in no doubt, in Labour local government circles this sorry episode continues to be regarded as a most monstrous tactical error by the previous leadership, as territory ceded to the Conservatives will be hard to regain.  (Indeed, Andy Burnham has had to work hard with local government figures to distance himself from the ‘Swiss Cheese NHS’ description of locally combined budgets he used in the run up to the election).

But today our governing experience is almost exclusively in local government and Wales, and not in the Parliamentary Labour party.  This will be same for the next 5 years.

It will be a major boost if we win London mayoralty but the reality, whoever emerges victorious in the leadership contest, is that the Labour party is only in office in local government and Wales and by 2020 we will have had a whole decade where our practical leadership is effectively developed outside of Westminster.

Someone once said that the difference between an MP and a leader of a council was that one had the powerless glamour of having the two letters “MP” after their name; and the other the glamourless power of running a council, with a budget of hundreds of millions of pounds.  This difference is accentuated when your party is in opposition for 10 years.

Only a handful of MPs have experience in senior public service decision-making.  Maybe this is changing with faces like Steve Reed, Wes Streeting and Catherine West being part of the PLP, but the numbers are still very limited.

On 27th August the Tories put 4 councillors and ex-council leaders in the Lords, continuing an approach they have stuck to for some time. The Liberals put one current mayor and a former council leaders.  Labour, however, appointed 7 former MPs (one of whom was a council leader 30 years ago) and, implausibly, the 2015 general election co-ordinator.  This tells you what SW1 Labour thinks of local government leaders: nothing at all.

When the Tories were in opposition for 13 long years their response was to build their strength in the Lords – from existing council leaders, not just former ones.

No wonder the Tories are outflanking us with the Northern Powerhouse and the Midland Engine, warts and all.

Labour councils – not MPs – are leading the way on implementing the living wage, on childcare and Surestart and building new council and social homes.

In all of these areas Labour councils have progressive plans despite the cuts – because they have prioritised spending on the things which make the most difference.

Our concern about poverty and jobs means that we are close to the impact of welfare changes and low paid work.  With devolved budgets on skills and welfare – something in the offing from a Conservative government – councillors will be at the forefront of changing the welfare system from one which is dominated by the concept of ‘support’ to one which sees welfare as an investment to help the jobless not just into work but careers.

They recognise that the needs of communities are changing, often in ways which might not be apparent to lawmakers stuck in endless cycles of legislation and PLP meetings.

Councillors have to make tough but humane decisions and change with the times without compromising our values.  Labour’s council leaders, cabinet members and scrutineers are doing this all the time.

This is unlike Westminster where MPs will probably never win a vote on domestic policy the next 5 years, and won’t set a budget other than for their own office costs.

But an ingrained centralism inflects both right and left of the Party. On the Right because of the slow creep toward central target-driven managerialism in the mid-2000s and on the Left the belief in a command economy exercised by pulling the mythical Whitehall lever-box.

If we keep debate in Westminster, we will be seen as creatures of Westminster and we will rightfully be punished for it. The future is communities deciding more things for themselves, we can’t afford to make the mistake Team Ed made again.

If we continue to be ‘SW1 Labour’ we will continue to fail.  Councillors – elected residents – are at the heart of this and the often the very reverse of the Labour ‘machine’ tag now firmly pinned on us.

Bursaries for aspirant MPs to widen the SW1 gene pool?   How about councillors, who have more experience and are drawn from a wider range than MPs in Westminster – and get more of them in Parliament?  The route from councillor-to-MP is probably one of the hardest to travel, precisely because they have been involved in difficult decisions and are perhaps easier to typecast by ambitious contenders.

In stands to reason Labour’s army of local decision-makers should be heard right across the Labour party, but too often central Labour is too self-absorbed to listen and councillors are too parochial in how they express themselves.   It’s not their fault, parochialism is part of the job description, but certainly there’s a need for councillors to have a much wider showcase to develop and apply their skills. This is what the Party should be doing – showcasing our best leaders and thinkers with some pride.

Case in point: as we approach conference season, council leaders and councillors will rarely be seen on our conference platforms or think tank seminars.  Look at your next conference guide.  Compare this to Democrats in the USA where new Mayors from small cities, like Cory Brooker when he was mayor of Newark, are positively celebrated. Last year’s women’s conference unbelievably had no Labour women council leaders until a fuss was made.

It takes a polemicist to state a debate but the only way we can change this is by challenge – without change Labour’s romance with centralism will ultimately be a death-embrace – and a totally preventable one at that.

Theo Blackwell is a Cabinet member in Camden

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4 Responses to “SW1 Labour is too busy pretending to be in the West Wing to value Labour’s local government leaders”

  1. Matt says:

    Not a Labourite, but superb.

  2. swatantra says:

    they are and if we had regional parliaments like in Scotland London wales and ni, they’d come to the fore.
    no reason why the next mayor of London shouldn’t be elected from the London assembly instead of a has been being parachuted in.

  3. david walsh says:

    Speaking as a Labour Councillor (and a Labour council Deputy Leader) there is much to commend in this piece. However, I wouldn’t rush to diss Ed M and Andy B who tried to get the Greater Manchester leaders to criticise the Osborne “Devomanc” offer. The unseemly race by some city leaders to roll over and have their tummies tickled by Osborne was pretty sickening, especially when (as the devil is in the detail) you unpick the devo packages only to find warm words covering very little in real powers, or poisoned chalices such as responsibility for the derided DWP work programme or an assumed power over local health services which turn out to have been top sliced and slashed in cash terms when handed over. Frankly, I would welcome some firm instructions by the NEC to local Labour Groups which might moderate the garadene rush and the outbreaks of petty parochialism.

  4. Theo Blackwell’s essential point is correct. Labour is, as it has been since the LRC was formed in 1900 a Westminster obsessed party, although its roots were in local government especially in London. There are some cautions about the current devolution initiative – its part of the austerity campaign, and handing powerlessness to the big northern and midland cities with the lack of money that the Tories plan to be the future means the right to make cuts.

    Since the voters can’t see that the cuts are coming from Westminster, they turn against Labour – which is what happened in Stoke in May. Be careful what you wish for.

    However the essential point is correct. While New Labour remains a group of Westminster oriented apparachiks with no experience outside the Westminster bubble, the mistakes will pile up. Currently Progress has issued a discussion document on the burning issue of the day – who will lead the Tory Party after Cameron. It matters a lot for people who want to climb the greasy pole, as they are looking for hints and tips for their own careers

    Those progressives who care more about using power for the common good are in a different ball game, and local government remains one of the very few areas where Labour can speak directly to the public. Let it be used within the limits of a government that is squeezing it dry.

    Trevor Fisher.

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