Confessions of a Political Animal

June 21, 2010

Time for the street-fighting council

On May 6th 2010, Labour won by a small landslide.

Yes, you did read that correctly. Because as the party fell to defeat in parliamentary seats across the country, it swept to power in London borough after London borough. Before the elections, of 32 London boroughs, Labour had majority control of just 7, running a further one in a coalition and one more as a result of having the elected mayor. By the evening of Friday 7th May, Labour had overall control of 17 boroughs, running one more as a minority administration. In 9 of the remaining 14 boroughs, Labour increased its number of seats. Eighteen months before the elections, I suggested that if the general and local elections were to coincide, this might prove to be to Labour’s benefit. So it turned out, but the results were far beyond what I predicted in that post. There is something more than just an increased turnout behind these very good results; and I believe that it has a direct bearing on how Labour councils in London, both newly-elected and returned, should conduct themselves over the next four years.

The easy answer to ‘Why did Labour do so well in London’ is that the party’s core vote turned out. But the core vote cannot deliver 18 boroughs – in reality (as was tested in 2006), it can be guaranteed to deliver about 5 boroughs. What turned out across London on May 6th was what I will describe as the ‘Core+’, a coalition of broadly progressive forces more akin to that which delivered two Livingstone victories than to that behind the 1997 landslide. With a Conservative victory nationally seen as certain, voters with personal or political reasons to fear the onset of Osbornomics (the radical, ideology-driven downsizing of the state using deficit reduction as a pretext) turned out, only partially in hope of preventing this, but equally to try to ensure that savage cuts would be opposed at a local level. For better or worse, this coalition of forces overwhelmingly saw Labour as the party best placed to deliver that opposition. 

Labour did not win 18 boroughs because of 18 incredible borough manifestos. True, some included radical and transformative policies. But many – particularly in some of the boroughs that haven’t been won since 1998 – were little more than a few core values scribbled on badly risographed flimsy paper. They won because the Core+ want to see cuts fought and opposed, not simply managed.

Herein lies my concern. Labour local authorities are faced with a powerful central government, with a large Commons majority, the ideological bit in its teeth and the most pliant human shield they could hope for in Clegg’s Lib Dems. Councils know what is coming in terms of cuts to funding, both this week and in September: last week, in-year cuts of up to 2% were foisted on local authorities. Senior officers are wasting no time in scaring new portfolio holders with doomsday scenarios of service closures. And the reality is, that 90%, maybe 95% of cuts enforced by central government are going to happen, whatever local authorities do. But this must not lead to a retreat to technocracy and a quiet acceptance of managed decline, which would both be a betrayal of Labour’s voters and politicaly disastrous.

As a clear example of the path I fear, I’d urge you to read this interview by Hangbitch with Lewisham’s Labour Mayor Sir Steve Bullock. Whilst not written from a particularly Labour-friendly perspective, it sums up the concerns I have. Yes, Labour local authorities need to be planning for how they limit the effect of cuts on the most vulnerable, when they come. But, starting yesterday, they need to be their borough’s cheerleaders in opposing the disastrous policies of central government. It was reported to me that a senior Labour operator in one inner London borough didn’t want their council to react too vocally to this week’s budget because this might earn them the sobriquet of ‘the loony left’.

It worries me greatly that Labour members are still modulating their behaviour in reaction to a right-wing strawman from three decades ago. Outside Liverpool, the ‘loony left’ – by which we mean an entryist, anti-democratic, anti-Labour force – barely existed. The Tory media had some success in pushing it as an idea largely because the Labour right connived with it to damage moderate-left local authorities. We cannot live in the shadow of that smear. Nor can we forget that the policy basis on which those councils operated is now, for the most part, mainstream political thinking: anti-racism, gay and lesbian rights, high-quality subsidised public transport, environmentalism, locally-controlled local government finance, housing investment. The first Labour council of the era of New Politics to be called ‘loony left’ should make it the official council motto: they are almost certainly setting the agenda of the next decade.

Let me provide an example of what isn’t happening, but should be. On Thursday last week, the Con-Lib coalition announced the ending of funding for Labour’s free swimming for the under-16s and over-65s, along with the capital swimming pools refurbishment funding pot which sat with it. This was an enabling state policy, which allowed thousands of people each year who would otherwise be priced out, to take part in a physical and social activity. It formed a key part of the Olympic legacy.

With six weeks notice to local authorities, this ended, with funding being withdrawn on the first day of the school summer holidays. A few squeaks has been the only reaction to this from local politicians, yet this unjust, unfair and unneccessary cut should be a rallying point. Over the weekend, there should not have been a leisure centre in a Labour-controlled London borough which didn’t have a Labour councillor standing outside with a petition against this cut. By Monday morning, there would probably have been ten thousand signatures from across those 18 boroughs. On Monday afternoon, it would have been announced that the leaders of the Labour-run boroughs would, in a week’s time, be handing in those signatures (plus another weekend’s worth) at the DCMS. They would be inviting with them community groups, voluntary organisations, pool user’s groups and trade unions. They would also issue an invitation to the leaders of the Lib Dem and Conservative run boroughs – will you join us, with your own signed petitions? From two weekends’ work, you have laid the ground work for a genuine community-rooted opposition to cuts, created a political dividing line and signalled to the government that their measures will not go unopposed.

Cuts to free swimming will be long forgotten by the end of this four-year council term. There will be far greater battles to fight, most of which will be lost. Labour councils will have to cut services, raise charges, cut jobs. But even if one cut is reversed, the fight will have been worth it. Firstly, because of the lives improved because of it; secondly, because Labour in London will hold onto that Core+ vote. If Labour councils are not seen at the fore-front of that fight, those extra voters will stay at home come 2014 (where there will probably be no general election to help) and the steady salami-slicing of Labour’s gains will begin. If Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers are not fulminating against the ‘extremist tactics’ of Labour authorities by 2014, London Labour will have failed; if The Sun has not attached the sobriquet ‘Red’ to at least one council leader’s name, London Labour will have failed; if the newly Labour-run London Councils has not been shut down by government because it has become a GLC-like focus of opposition to Osbornomics, London Labour will have failed. That opposition will be what wins Labour the Mayoralty back in 2012 and what will increase the trawl of Labour-run boroughs still further in 2014.

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