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Bring a New Politics into Local Democracy

21st December 2015

Bring a New Politics into Local Democracy

LRC EC Statement

On the basis of a hasty and highly selective reading of the letter sent to Labour councils by Jeremy Corbyn, together with John McDonnell and Jon Trickett, some right-wingers are claiming that the leadership has endorsed their existing strategy towards implementing the cuts. Likewise some sectarian elements on the left have already begun to accuse the leadership of having made a demoralising climb-down on the issue. 

In fact, it is a mistake to see this letter as closing down the debate.  Instead, it represents an implicit critique of the failure of the previous leadership – under then Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary Hilary Benn – for failing to ensure that Labour councils across the country engaged “community campaigners, council staff who are under duress as a result of Tory spending cuts, local citizens and others in defending local services”. The letter opens up the whole question of introducing a new and more overtly political approach instead.

It is simply a matter of fact that in the absence of such a mass campaign any attempt to introduce an illegal budget would be liable to be overturned, with councillors debarred from office and spending decisions taken over by the council officers or the Secretary of State.  But the letter precisely goes on to advocate building such a mass campaign.  The role of the LRC and the Labour left is to pressure our local councils through CLPs and wider campaigning groups including Momentum, to make sure that the call for such a mass campaign is made into a reality, and develops to an extent which makes a bolder course of action possible.

The election of a radical left leadership, with an overwhelming mandate from members of supporters of the Party, has changed the situation which the LRC faces.  We are now not only defending the rights of individual councillors to raise the need for no-cuts budgets, and supporting them in the face of disciplinary measures – which we will continue to do.  Rather, we now have the chance to develop and implement a strategy for the whole of Labour’s local government base to resist the cuts in practice. But only by mobilising significant sections of our communities will this become a practical option.

In no sense should the existing legal situation be used as an excuse to implement Tory cuts.  If Labour’s new commitment to being an “anti-austerity” party is to be credible, we need to be demonstrating at a local level that we are willing in practice to challenge the imposition of these cuts.  It does not automatically follow that setting a legal budget means simply passing on the cuts to our communities.  Since they have a disproportionate impact on women, disabled people and minority ethnic communities, cuts which would further widen existing inequalities must not be passed on.  The LRC calls on councils to exhaust all available avenues under the law, including extensive drawing-down of reserves and use of prudential borrowing powers, to forestall the latest round of cuts while an effective mass campaign of resistance is built.
In the spirit of the decision to respect the genuine difference between MPs by giving them a free vote over the bombing of Syria, we also call for a radical overhaul of the Councillors’ Contract to ensure that individual councillors have the freedom to express their views over issues much closer to home.  If the Party can relax the whip on issues of life and death, surely it might be relaxed on questions like cuts to essential social care?

At the same time we recognise the dangers of council leaders and officers interpreting the leadership’s letter as a green light for continuing with the cuts.  Some Labour councillors appear to need reminding that they are political representatives and not just competent and compassionate administrators.  If Labour fails to respond to the challenge of building a mass campaign of resistance to Tory-driven austerity at a local level, the whole question of our credibility as an “anti-austerity” party will be undermined.  We will look like the kind of party who makes promises in opposition but fails to deliver on them in power.  Worse, if we fail to build a mass campaign against these Tory cuts, we will have failed to create the political basis in public opinion for throwing out this government
and getting a radical Corbyn-led Labour government elected.

We cannot stress enough the urgency of building a broad, united campaign against the Tory cuts which actively mobilises our communities behind mass resistance.  This would open up new possibilities, including expanding and democratising the whole budget-setting process by introducing forms of community participation and deliberation over the needs of their own communities.  This is not the end of the debate, it’s only the beginning.  It’s high time that Labour brought a new politics into local democracy.

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