In 2014, that reality is staring at us full force in the face. The present model of local government has run its course. The town halls dreamt up as the heartbeat of municipal socialism – with councillors accountable to their constituents and their party, providing to empower their communities – are on a life support machine.
The very ethos of local government itself is at stake. The Conservative party championed the Localism bill of 2011, and promised us the ‘Big Society’. But in reality the party is hell-bent on delivering a more minimal and centralized state. And this starts with cuts to council budgets, whatever the cost to the those relying on services – including vital care – and local government employment.
So we can’t just cling onto the status quo. Local government needs rescuing, a plan of action – reforms that will reinvigorate it for the twenty-first century. Empowerment and direct democracy for its citizens; re-financing based on the needs of each individual town and city; decentralisation from Whitehall for new regional assemblies. Our councils need greater legislative and financial autonomy – a two-way relationship with Whitehall, instead of the current one-sided offering.
An incoming Labour government must immediately reassess the current formula for local government funding. It cannot be just that the leafy suburbs of Oxfordshire require the same funding & deserve lesser cuts than Stoke or Liverpool. In the simplest terms it is a dangerous formula, and is putting councils (needlessly) in danger of bankruptcy. Councils are short-changed, cannot afford to pay for even statutory social care services, and citizens are put in danger of ill health. The level of funding the current model diverts from local economies has been estimated as high as £4.1 billion. It is therefore vital this antiquated dogma is scrapped and replaced with something fairer and just, based on the provision of need.
But when we see an austerity government slashing local government budgets, it exposes a wider flaw in the system: that councils are so dependent on central government grants.
How can this be overcome? In setting a budget, a council must be able to think on its feet, set out its own viable alternatives and raise their own cash within a basic legal framework. The borrowing powers given to town halls by the 2003 local government act could be radically extended: so they could borrow from the likes of town hall pension funds, and run a sensible deficit. There has already been some flawed, but nonetheless original, proposals for ‘needs budgets’ attempting to work within the current legal framework. Tabled as amendments within our council chambers, in certain instances.
Labour must end councils’ complete reliance on centralised grants as we have seen it so often cripple our town halls. Our party must legislate to empower elected councillors to raise and borrow funds without interference where there is a clear need to do so. Otherwise councillors will continue as they do currently – to act as nothing more than passive auditors and administrators of cuts made by the likes of Osborne and Pickles.
Furthermore, If there is a difference of opinion in any one Labour Group, as there has been in the past, as there has been in Hull, dissenters should be treated with respect. (Wasn’t thinking outside the box encouraged once upon a time?) We are all familiar with the principles of democratic centralism, collective responsibility and discipline. Voting against the Labour whip – as happened in Hull, when councillors refused to vote for a cuts budget – is a serious and unfortunate step. But surely, as socialists, we can also respect each others’ rights to think freely and take a stance of principle. In this scenario a councillor should be permitted and obliged to air their concerns, and if it comes to it, fully entitled to take a stand for their constituents and vote against any one particular measure or budget that would gravely affect people. Individual councillors can no longer be surcharged, but there should be no threat of permanent exclusion from a council’s Labour group.
It is with great sadness this occasionally has not been the case. But what other tacts have been taken by realistic political forces across Europe? In Donegal, in the Irish Republic, Sinn Fein’s councillors, operating within the law, voted down budget proposals, dissolving the council – and relinquishing of their own salaries. Some may call it ‘gesture politics’, but the electorate truly appreciate representatives with backbone, those who don’t think principle is optional.
When the local elections come around on 22nd May, the public do not want to be patronised, and hear that Labour will ‘cut better than the Tories’. If that is The Labour Party’s vision for localism, it’s frankly not good enough.
Labour must encourage radical reform for town hall autonomy, and foster an environment where Labour Councillors aren’t afraid to put other options on the table. Labour’s present offer simply fails to provide an alternative, and will only further alienate people from the ballot box and politics altogether. As proven by the the “New Build Project” of Labour-run Islington, and Tower Hamlets’ council/resident led Energy Co-op, Labour councils can be runaway successes when being original. These examples demonstrate that it’s time to move away from “outsourcing” council services to private monopolies. Instead we need empowerment and decentralization.
Labour must truly re-define itself, and re-demonstrate its values before the next local elections. Does it, like Unite, stand for consistent and fair pay increases for local government employees? Does it insist during procurement that no contract will be awarded to any contractor public or private to any organisation that uses blacklists or refuses to pay its staff living wage?
What about council tax? Could we save money, like have Welsh Labour, in supporting a transition to more unitary authorities? Where do we stand on city mayors, beyond the apparent aspiration to all things grand?
What sort of model of service delivery does it support? Will we go for local credit unions and energy co-ops, or simply capitulation to minimal provision of money advice services, and no alternatives to fuel poverty other than the multinational big six?
These are the everyday things voters in the local elections on doorsteps across the country will want to know about. Members will want to make proposals manifestos: and we need to have the policy process, answers, vision, expertise and the conviction to make these a reality. So far, many questions haven’t been answered properly. At present, far too many council chambers are the territory of a self serving tight clique. That is why Unite’s councillors network is working hard to ensure working people are trained, selected and elected into our town halls. Put simply, to best represent, protect and pursue the policies that will benefit working-class people. It is also why many trade union members are keenly pushing for more democracy and policy powers within their local Labour parties, and at national level.
At the moment, the best Labour members can expect when it comes to having their say on local manifestos is through their Local Campaign Forum (LCF). These are often dwarfed in size and might by the Labour group of councillors. Often, Labour groups simply devise the manifesto themselves – and they are encouraged to do exactly that by the rule book amendments of “Refounding Labour”. That is not an inclusive policy process – it won’t improve localism for working people, nor will it widen the participation of our communities or Labour’s affiliates.
All Labour members want the party to win decisively in the upcoming local elections – and want to cast as many Lib Dems, Tories and UKIP councillors into the dustbin of history. But can we, with our current offer? Frankly, I’m not sure. Much more work needs to be done, even before we consider getting into government in 2015 – and hopefully making amends for the Tories’ betrayal of local government. The fight for a local goverment fit for the twenty-first century starts now.