Saturday, November 04, 2017

What do we want from Labour Councillors?

A few weeks ago I blogged about the dilemma which faces socialists in the Labour Party (now that it has a socialist Leader) in relation to Labour Councillors and what it is we want from them.

I have, since then, held off blogging a fair bit because (as the Chair of a CLP in Brighton and Hove) I haven’t wanted to express (in public) my opinions (even personal opinions) about the conduct of a “leading” local politician.

And I still won’t reward that sort of attention seeking behaviour with comment here.

However, I do think that socialists need to be thinking much more about what we should be doing with local government, as we have not for a generation.

In my last comment on this topic I observed the following;

“In Poplar in the 1920s, Clay Cross in the 1970s and in Lambeth and Liverpool in the 1980s Labour Councillors were forced to make the choice between “breaking the law” and “breaking the poor” – and in each case a brave minority made the right choice and were defeated and subsequently denigrated.

Last year’s Party Conference sadly agreed a Rule Amendment which sought to lock Labour Councillors into perpetual support for austerity where this is dictated by Central Government (a decision which must inevitably be reversed as soon as possible) – but the decision of whether or not to support a “lawful budget” if that means savage cuts to local jobs and services is one which is unfortunately worlds away from our current concerns.

What has happened since the defeat of “municipal socialism” in the 1980s is that Labour Councillors have learned that their mission in life is to mitigate the damage being done to local services by Central Government (or, when they can, to come up with some imaginative jargon to make such damage limitation look both imaginative and progressive).

Of course, this has made local government unappealing to those whose purpose in engaging in political activity is to change the world. It has also forced Labour Groups to become embattled minorities, circling their own wagons against enemies on the left as well as the right.”

I think that if we are going to work out what we want from Labour Councillors as we draw to the end of the second decade of the twenty first century we need to reflect a little more on what has happened over the past generation.

The last time that anything really significant (from a socialist point of view) happened in local government in the UK was the 1980s, when the Livingstone-led Greater London Council (in particular – but alongside the Metropolitan County Councils and some London Boroughs) tested the boundaries of what progressive Councillors could do with their positions.

Those (and they are many) who would decry the experience of the so-called “loony left” Councils of the mid and late 80s need to be reminded that these were the pioneers of equal opportunities, who stood for anti-racism, and flew rainbow flags for Pride, when such expressions of opinion were not only not mainstream but were marginalised and ridiculed. As important as the equality commitments of left-led Labour Councils of that period were the attempts to broaden the concerns of local government, whether that was through the London Industrial Strategy, the Nuclear Free Zone movement, or progressive town twinning.

I am personally proud to have worked for Lambeth Council for many years precisely because Lambeth was one of the centres of the (mostly) defeated municipal socialism of my (relative) youth. We cannot go back in time to the 1980s (and should not try, not even for the far better music). We can, however, try to recapture some of the spirit which informed local politicians then and to apply it to our contemporary concerns.

If we can hope to do this we need to understand the harm has been done to local democracy in the decades since the defeat of 80s municipal socialism. This harm has been done in the relationship between central and local Government, in the structure of local government and within the Labour Party itself.

The defeat of the struggle against ratecapping in the mid-80s was a defining moment in the domination of local government by the central state, ushering in a period in which central government has controlled the spending of local authorities whilst simultaneously instructing them as to how they should spend what little they have.

When New Labour inherited the country from a discredited and worn-out post-Thatcher Tory Party in 1997 the idea of autonomous activity from the local level was anathema to both its Blairite and Brownite wings. New Labour encouraged the “Cabinet” or “Executive” system of governance (where it could not drive through the even less democratic model of an elected Mayor).

New Labour needed “Cabinets” because it could not rely upon the majority of (then) Labour Councillors to do as they were told. The Cabinet system has demoted the role of most backbench Labour Councillors and created a small cadre of full and part time Councillors who appear to exercise power (by doing what they are told by Council officers). They are paid allowances which generally exceed the expenses Councillors used to receive (and which provide a material basis for an interest in collective discipline for each individual within the “leadership” of a local authority).

Over the same period the Association of Labour Councillors has been created as a body to which all Labour Councillors must belong, creating both a mechanism whereby the central Labour Party could discipline recalcitrant individuals if their local Group would not and also a vehicle for Labour Councillors to be an affiliated organisation and claim representation on the National Executive Council which representation is neither use nor ornament from the point of view of socialist struggle.

Since 2010 a pitiably small number of Labour Councillors have stood firm against cuts in jobs and services (which conduct, in the case of those who are part of a Labour administration would now of course get them disciplined by the Party in any case). Councillors Against the Cuts were isolated and defeated (with the local government trade unions playing a disgraceful role in ensuring their defeat).

It is deeply ironic that, now that Labour Councillors face none of the risks and threats which Ted Knight and the surcharged Lambeth Councillors faced in the 80s they are generally both much less likely to stand up to Central Government – and also much more taken with the idea that they are really important people who make dramatic sacrifices to our movement and therefore deserve disproportionate respect. We want many more Labour Councillors but (with some noble exceptions) we certainly do not want more of the same.

But what do we want?

These are just personal opinions about the basic principles of what we want, and only the beginnings thereof, but here they are;

1)    Labour Councillors are shop stewards for their local communities first of all;
2)    Labour administrations are representatives of the local working class first of all;
3)    Labour Councillors are an integral part of local Labour Parties, to whom they are – and must be - accountable on a day to day basis;
4)    Labour Councillors are not separate from other Party members, who should support Councillors in their work as representatives of their ward constituents;
5)    Labour administrations should use such power and influence as they have to do what they can to prefigure what we want a Labour Government to do;
6)    If compromises have to be made these should be acknowledged for what they are and agreed in advance by the local Party.

I intend to develop these ideas further - and would welcome comments. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Evidence of life in UNISON...

For anyone else contemplating stepping aside from onerous trade union responsibilities after a quarter of a century, my advice is to give yourself some space and not to try to pay too much detailed attention to what is going on in relation to matters which are no longer your responsibility.

However, it is good to see that my friends and comrades on the left of UNISON’s National Executive Council (NEC) are making some headway in trying to drive UNISON forward – in spite of the deliberate stuffing of NEC Committees with those in the (very) narrow majority of the NEC who support the failing leadership of the Union.

The official report of this week’s UNISON NEC meeting tells you very little (as ever) – apart from the fact that UNISON is starting a campaign to beat the Government’s pay freeze (as it has been every year for at least the last five years). However, behind the scenes it seems that critical thinkers on the left of the NEC successfully pushed the NEC to take a vote on a proposition (albeit one that was amended on the intervention of the President).

Having spent fourteen years on that NEC I can assure you, dear reader, that getting a vote taken at an NEC meeting on anything that hadn’t been scripted in advance by officials is a very significant achievement – and the fact that the NEC could not itself call for indicative ballots for strike action over pay, but could only encourage Service Group Executives (SGEs) to take such initiatives is a consequence of UNISON’s long established structure.

Whilst anyone waiting for the leadership of UNISON to lead a fight to smash the pay freeze would be ill advised to hold their breath, reports from this week’s meeting show that there is still life within UNISON – and branches should be submitting motions through their Service Groups to keep up the pressure placed upon the leadership as a result of the discussion at the NEC.

If the trade unions are to experience the same sort of surge of growth and interest which the Labour Party has seen in the recent past then trade union leaders – at every level – need to show confidence and a combative spirit to members and potential members.

Good luck to those trying to achieve this.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Today at Parliament...

A Labour Party commitment will keep me from today’s march and lobby of Parliament in support of fair pay for public servants.

This is a shame since I am fascinated by the novel approach of relying upon lobbying and petitioning in order to secure a pay rise – it’s nearly as exciting as changing the world one hashtag at a time and I can only imagine how foolish the founders of our movement would feel now if only they could come and see that it is now possible to achieve one’s objectives without significant sacrifice or struggle.

Or maybe not.

Anyway, this is not a blog post about how the leadership of the trade union movement have repeatedly failed to lead a serious struggle against attacks on the interests of trade union members since the organised capitulation over public service pensions in 2012 (I’ll come back to that topic I’m sure).

So I shall set my cynicism about the TUC and UNISON to one side.

My interest today is in the changes which have been made to the proposals from the Boundary Commissioners to implement the Tories’ gerrymandering plans in England in particular. Revised proposals for changes to the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies have been released today.

From a purely parochial point of view I am pleased that the plans to do away with Brighton Pavilion constituency have been abandoned – but from a national point of view, these unnecessary proposals to reduce the number of elected Members of Parliament (which will doubtless lead to a further increase in the larger number of Members of the unelected House) are a deliberate attempt to increase the chances of the Tory Party in the coming election.

Given that these proposals are all based upon the numbers on the electoral register prior to the increases in the run up to the 2016 referendum and to this year’s General Election, there are compelling arguments to drop this boundary review and start again.

Probably the simplest way to do this would be to bring this rotten Government down as soon as possible.

Now there would be a good reason to go to Parliament…