Wednesday, December 14, 2016
The strange death of municipal England - the role of the trade unions?
Your blogger, as someone who was a student of local government even before I was an employee, can do no better than recommend this free essay in the London Review of Books on “the Strange Death of Municipal England”.
Seriously, go and read that now. Even if you don’t come back here.
Before starting work in local government thirty years ago, I knew that in successive struggles in the twentieth century socialists in English local government had fought to defend a model of autonomous, redistributive and adequately resourced municipal government.
In Poplar in the 1920s and Clay Cross in the 1970s, Labour Councillors defied unjust laws rather than abandon the interests of their working class electorate – and in the 1980s Thatcher fought the “enemy within” in local government with quite as much determination as she fought the trade unions.
The abolition of the Greater London Council and the (less lamented) Metropolitan County Councils in 1986 have arguably been more significant in the long term than ratecapping, although it is that struggle, particularly in Liverpool and Lambeth, which is better remembered - both by those of us who celebrate that defiance and by those who have built entire lives running away from it.
At the time what was significant about the defeat of the poll tax was the end of Thatcher – but a generation on we can also see that the replacement Council Tax has helped to facilitate the continuing decline of the autonomy and legitimacy of local government.
As the last Peace and Nuclear Affairs Officer of the (nuclear free zone) London Borough of Lambeth your blogger is an authentic relic of the 1980s “loony left” – and as the last Branch Secretary of the Lambeth Branch of the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO) also a relic of a time when the organisations of the local government workforce defended local government.
Because alongside the tragedy of the death of municipal England is the role of the trade unions representing the local government workforce in providing little more than well informed commentary.
The largest collective bargaining unit in the economy is the local government workforce in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (since Scotland broke away). This enormous chunk of the trade unionised working class is organised largely in the three largest trade unions – who between themselves have half the membership of the TUC.
Yet neither our trade unions nor our trade union movement as a whole have prioritised the defence of local government over the past generation. This failure has reached its culmination in the period since 2010. During the Coalition Government, local Councils shed a fifth of their workforce, and the remaining four fifths lost a fifth of their real income.
So, perhaps if we want better to comprehend the “strange death of municipal England” we need also to consider the state of local government trade unionism.
Of which more later.