MARGARET THATCHER simultaneously politicised local government in the 1980s and began its transformation to its managerial nadir. On the one hand, her government triggered campaign after campaign from anti-rate capping to the mass opposition to the poll tax. Yet, as well, Thatcher saw the gradual hollowing out of local government, eventually leading to councillors becoming quasi-managers - and this was carried on enthusiastically by Blair’s performance-management New Labour regime.
Thatcher’s assault on councils was thorough and persistent, with the marketisation of services resulting in:
- councils as ‘enablers’ and not providers;
- social care becoming almost 100% outsourced;
- blackmail to force councils to transfer their housing stock;
- the building of new schools and hospitals, but doing it through PFI, where the public sector took on the risk (despite what was said by the government and the private companies involved) and the public sector suffered decades of debt.
Since 2010, the effects of decades of outsourcing and depoliticisation has been reinforced by massive cuts. In this period, over 25% of the local government workforce - some 250,000 people - have seen their jobs disappear. There has been a weakening of terms and conditions of workers transferred to private companies and ever increasing cuts to services. On average, councils receive 40% less central funding than they did in 2010 and the cuts have been more severe in the poorest areas.
But the wider effects were damaging too - with local politicians losing more and more control of how services are procured, managed and delivered, and with the subsequent loss of democratic accountability and scrutiny. This is the case especially in housing - where the setting up of transfer housing associations and arms-length management organisations meant losing the links between councillors and tenants.
So here we are now in a situation where local democracy is weakened, councillors perceived more like local administrators, councils divested of vital services, social care in ever-growing crisis, and a government set on carrying out the worst cuts possibly in local government history.
It is local government that has borne the brunt of cuts to public services. It isn’t only cuts in isolation that are destroying lives but cuts set alongside welfare ‘reform’. And on the housing front line we face the loss of social housing and the reality of social cleansing happening as a result of some of the massive regeneration schemes in London and other cities. Has the left a coherent strategy to defend communities, services and jobs from further decimation? The honest answer, of course, is no.
The left remains weak in local government. But even those who supported Corbyn are not rushing to suggest there should be open defiance of the government. There haven’t been any high profile campaigns led by the party leadership specifically about cuts in local government. Corbyn even made it clear councillors who voted against a legal budget would lose the whip, including opposition councillors. It isn’t surprising that before the June election, the Labour leadership, besieged from within the Party, didn’t want to take on Labour councillors and the media.
There is some nostalgia on the left for the 1980s and Lambeth and Liverpool, so why is there no real push for Labour councils to set illegal budgets? Maybe because they emerged from factions in the Party like Militant. Perhaps because the defiance of those councillors was the culmination of campaigns and legal wrangling that had gone on for a long time before? And the stance of the councillors was ultimately unsuccessful - it didn’t stop the cuts and it didn’t lead to a mass campaign in the wider labour movement. Neil Kinnock used the Liverpool experience to turn the Party significantly to the right.
There has been no similar defiance in local government since 2010. It would be unrealistic to expect that a few isolated councillors would suddenly risk not just losing their positions and party membership, but having government imposed commissioners taking over.
There is no longer the threat of surcharge but there are different barriers to taking action. Realistically Labour councils setting illegal budgets is not going to happen.
Should the left should just wait for a Labour government and do little else? But achieving a Labour government will surely be more difficult if, over the next few years, communities with Labour councils increasingly suffer damage. (assuming there isn’t an election before 2022).
This is especially evident with some of the huge regeneration schemes in London and several other cities. Some Labour councils have been facing increasing community and trade union opposition to schemes where public housing and assets are being privatised with a huge net loss of council homes. Councils like Haringey will argue they have been forced into these deals (in Haringey’s case a joint venture worth £2 billion) because of the housing crisis and the lack of investment in their boroughs. In part this is true, but at what cost – to affordable homes, community identity and, crucially, trust?
Corbyn’s conference speech was strongest when he spelled out his opposition to what these kind of schemes mean. The result, is “forced gentrification and social cleansing, as private developers move in and tenants and leaseholders are moved out”. He has committed a Labour government to compel councils to ballot all tenants and leaseholders before any regeneration. “No social cleansing, no jacking up rents, no exorbitant ground rents,” he promised.
The schemes happening now will, though, go ahead as planned. But Labour councillors who seem to be ignoring what residents are saying must be challenged by the left, however difficult that is.
How can Labour gain credibility in local areas that are suffering and begin a real fight back against the damage caused by this government?
At the very minimum the Party and councillors need to show they are on the side of communities facing cuts. This means not attacking groups that are opposing cuts, even if some of them blame the council, but instead working with them to expose the reality of what the government is doing.
Labour councillors need to be taking the lead locally in opposing the government - not hiding behind a shield of legalities. The budget isn’t the only issue here:
- Are Labour councils opposing privatisation, bringing services back in-house where possible, and pushing for a proper living wage, inside and outside the council?
- Are they doing whatever they can to ensure developers aren’t getting away with blackmail over so-called affordable housing numbers?
- Are they using every means to prevent redundancies and cuts to already damaged services like social care by using reserves or through creative, but legal, financial means?
- Do councillors have clear advice about the legal and financial flexibilities available to them to set an antiausterity budget?
Yes, of course, these measures aren’t the answer, but they can help to stave off the worst short-term consequences of Tory assaults on Labour councils. Is this enough? Again, no, it can’t be unless we can be sure a general election is imminent.
Clearly no council or councillor is going to make a difference if they are acting in isolation. The left has a responsibility to try to break down that isolation, at an individual and a collective level. Why is there no attempt to bring existing left Labour councillors together and to build support for prospective councillors - some of whom will be reluctant to stand anyway if they think they will be on their own if they win?
Labour councils can’t be expected to lead the resistance to government policies and cuts if they are not supported by the Labour leadership, MPs and trade unions. There was a sense of this need for co-ordination at this year’s annual conference but without much urgency behind it.
What is clear is that every day sees this Tory government becoming more and more beleaguered. A mass campaign, led by the Labour leadership, the local government trade unions and Labour councillors, could be a final nail in the coffin of a disintegrating government.
There is another more optimistic lesson from the past - the poll tax - where campaigners mobilised huge numbers of people and led to its abolition and Thatcher’s demise.
This time a campaign led by Labour and the trade unions could see the end of this vile government.
- For further reading, ‘Better a Dented Shield’? The Left and Labour Councils and Who Stole the Town Hall? The end of local government as we know it' Peter Latham, Policy Press, 2017
reports on the growing crisis in local government and looks to Labour to provide the solution