This week our screens will once again fill with graphs and bar charts as pundits try to make sense of local election results which are by their nature patchy and difficult to benchmark. As much as anything, the results will demonstrate the limitations of building your entire politics around electoral success. Will a good result for Labour mean Keir Starmer was right to ditch his leadership campaign promises and suspend Jeremy Corbyn? Just how good will it have to be to justify his ‘tough’ stance on drugs or immigration, or the leadership deliberately having a public wobble on trans rights? If Labour takes control of Barnet council, will that mean Starmer was right to demand harsher sentences for anti-climate change protesters? Over to you in the studio.
But beyond the endless talking points, there’s a much more important question which the left – especially the part of the left that has remained in Labour – needs to ask itself: what’s the point? Is trying to get ‘our people’ elected to local government really a good use of our time?
Local councils are the backbone of the state and of the services it provides, but have very little power in comparison to their counterparts across Europe. Since 2010, they’ve had a substantial amount of responsibility transferred to them from central government, but have also had their funding reduced by about half – and in London by about 63%. Youth centres now barely exist, while services like libraries and social care have been decimated. Cuts made by local councils often cost money in the long run, because leaving vulnerable people unsupported stores up problems for the future, but they’re largely made anyway. If elected this week, Labour’s candidates will find themselves the managers of a programme of continued public sector decline, choosing not whether but where the axe will fall.
Local government was once the centre of resistance to Tory rule. The 1921 Poplar Rebellion, led by George Lansbury under the slogan “it is better to break the law than break the poor”, fought a successful battle to reform local taxation and raise money to fund a radical social programme by setting an illegal budget. Militant-run Liverpool and Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council (GLC) were the two most famous examples of radical local government of their time, but were in fact two of a large number of Labour councils which – at least at the start of the 1980s – adopted a position of resistance towards the Thatcher government, defying the policy of rate capping and organising campaigns of mass protest against cuts.
The era of local government resistance in the 1980s failed, alongside wider resistance to Thatcherism. But it was by all accounts an inspiring moment of collective agency, and it haunted the political establishment so much that they made it almost impossible to repeat. Neil Kinnock’s 1985 Labour conference speech condemning “the grotesque chaos” of Liverpool council lives on because it distils the Labour right’s narrative about the decade and the party’s shift to the centre. Alongside the purging of the organised left, Kinnock introduced reforms banning Labour councillors from dissenting from their Labour group, thereby making it almost impossible for the left to gain footholds. The Tories’ response, which was of course not challenged by New Labour, was to drastically reduce the powers of local government (including literally abolishing the GLC) and to change the law so that if illegal budgets were set in future, central government could simply take over any council directly.
The cumulative effect of these reforms, and of the domination of local government by the right, is that the Coalition and Conservative governments have effectively been able to outsource austerity. In many parts of the country, Labour has become the face of the cuts. In the 1980s and 1990s, opponents of the left’s strategy in local government espoused what they called the “dented shield”. In theory, this meant a policy of implementing cuts, but in the most humane way possible, while being honest with their communities about the situation they were in.
It would be overly generous to many councils to credit them with having pursued the dented shield since 2010. If you examine Labour’s record in local government, you will find in many places an unbroken ideological commitment to outsourcing and private development that is driving, rather than restraining, gentrification and cuts. As one London Unison activist put it to me: “I’m happy to hear them cry about how they’ve got no money for children’s centres and social housing, but only once they’ve stopped paying stupid money to consultants and selling off the council estates to venture capitalists.”
Corbynism’s missed opportunity.
The Corbyn project ought to have transformed local government, but in practice left it unchanged. Those at The World Transformed festival may well have attended panels on municipal socialism, but no coherent strategy ever formed in the five years the left ran Labour. Momentum’s operation was limited to getting candidates selected and providing networking opportunities, and the leadership was blunt about its lack of willingness to put forward anything new. In fact, rule changes introduced while Corbyn was leader have made life even more constricted for would-be rebel councillors. As well as being subject to summary suspension of the whip if they rebel, councillors now face disciplinary action if they oppose (or even abstain on) a budget. The left’s strategy was, on this issue as on everything else, to bet the house on getting a Corbyn-led government – and it didn’t pay off.
On only one occasion did the left manage to comprehensively take over a council, and it’s fair to say the reviews are mixed. In 2017, a grassroots campaign managed to deselect the existing leadership of Haringey council, who were planning a gigantic PFI scheme known as the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV) which would have turbo-charged gentrification in the area. However, after successfully blocking the HDV and claiming the mantle of ‘the Corbyn council’, Haringey’s new councillors proceeded to continue with plans to demolish the Latin Village in Seven Sisters to make way for luxury flats, and refused to explore legal options for getting out of its contract with the construction giant Grainger. Council leader Joe Ejiofor even wrote to central government urging them to hurry the compulsory purchase order. Eventually, Grainger itself withdrew from the contract and the Village was saved – but local campaigners were left exasperated, and are still searching for ways in which the new council was more leftwing – or more democratic – than the old.
None of this is to say there aren’t some very capable and principled people in Labour councils, albeit pursuing wildly different strategies. Just two months ago, seven Liverpool councillors were suspended from the party for voting against a budget which included major cuts to social care and other services, among them Alan Gibbons, who stated: “Liverpool’s communities are at breaking point. As a matter of conscience, I am not prepared to vote for cuts that will make life harder for the people I represent.”
Meanwhile, the leadership of Preston council has achieved a great deal using a community wealth-building strategy that prioritises co-operatives and uses ‘anchor institutions’ to rebuild the local economy, doing away with outsourcing and PFI projects. Using the limited power of local government, the ‘Preston model’ has managed to cushion its community against much of the worst, and begun to reverse some of the hollowing out of the state. It is, perhaps, what a genuine 21st century ‘dented shield’ might look like – and if a progressive government were to come to power, it could be the basis for much more than that.
What’s the alternative?
But while community wealth-building models are progressive as far as they go, and are a source of popularity for Labour locally, they remain limited. Rather than seeking to harness the power of local government to build a movement of resistance to central government, it builds an island for its community. Its focus is on improving lives from above, not on social struggle or building the power of workers against capital. It is also, unlike the GLC of the 1980s or the participatory budgeting models of Porto Alegre in Brazil, not an attempt to democratise local government or transform its structures.
To a great extent, the left’s inertia in local government stems from the strategic problems of the Corbyn project. The Labour left councillors of the 1980s came into office off the back of big grassroots campaigns and strikes – mass movements which provided them with a ready-made strategy and held them to account. Today’s councillors, on the other hand, are products of an era in which the left turned away from social and industrial struggle, and focused almost exclusively on the task of supporting the Corbyn leadership and getting it elected. They may well complain that without a lively local movement they can side with, voting against a budget and getting themselves expelled from the Labour group doesn’t achieve much – and they may well be right. But they haven’t got any other strategies to speak of – and many will become apologists for the cuts they end up implementing.
The left in local government always had two winning strategies: working alongside a radical central government to deliver fundamental social and democratic change, or working against a rightwing one as part of a mass movement. Any hope of the former is dead for at least a decade, and the movement that would be the basis for the latter does not exist – yet. Watching the sea of canvassers this week, I can’t help but think that all of that time, effort and resources would be better directed at building it.
Michael Chessum is a socialist activist and writer based in London. His first book, This is Only the Beginning: The Making of a New Left, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2022.