Sunday, September 24, 2017
Local politics for local people...
My attempt to avoid being dragged into Labour Party Conference was today partly frustrated by having to carry the historic banner of Brighton Labour Party on a convoluted route from the Level to Regency Square by way of a circuit of the Old Steine as part of the demonstration in defence of our NHS.
Just like yesterday’s mass rally at the Level addressed by Jeremy Corbyn this was very much an event dominated by local people – and it is to local activity that those of us who are supportive of the general direction of our Party under its current leadership need now to turn our attention.
It seems likely that Conference will reduce the proportion of Parliamentarians who must approve of a future leadership candidate before that candidate can be voted for by we mere members – and those who fear the consequences of that decision are already squealing about how Labour has always been a “Parliamentary” party.
There is some truth in that claim (although no particular legitimacy in the conclusion which those who make it seem to draw from it in relation to the leadership) – but it would be closer to the truth to say that our Party has always been engaged in seeking elected office for our representatives at every level.
Which means that local government has always been at the centre of the history and development of our Labour Party – and we have always faced the challenge of dealing with circumstances in which a Party which stands for the fundamental transformation of our society becomes enmeshed with the administration of that society at a local level.
This is a challenge because there is an inevitable contradiction between seeking the best way to administer a society which is, at its heart, inimical to our people on the one hand – and promoting the interests of working people on the other. Occasionally, when circumstances have dictated that this contradiction is posed starkly, we have seen the choice clearly.
In Poplar in the 1920s, Clay Cross in the 1970s and in Lambeth and Liverpool in the 1980s Labour Councillors were forced to make the choice between “breaking the law” and “breaking the poor” – and in each case a brave minority made the right choice and were defeated and subsequently denigrated.
Last year’s Party Conference sadly agreed a Rule Amendment which sought to lock Labour Councillors into perpetual support for austerity where this is dictated by Central Government (a decision which must inevitably be reversed as soon as possible) – but the decision of whether or not to support a “lawful budget” if that means savage cuts to local jobs and services is one which is unfortunately worlds away from our current concerns.
What has happened since the defeat of “municipal socialism” in the 1980s is that Labour Councillors have learned that their mission in life is to mitigate the damage being done to local services by Central Government (or, when they can, to come up with some imaginative jargon to make such damage limitation look both imaginative and progressive).
Of course, this has made local government unappealing to those whose purpose in engaging in political activity is to change the world. It has also forced Labour Groups to become embattled minorities, circling their own wagons against enemies on the left as well as the right.
I have witnessed the “groupthink” of Labour Groups which come to put loyalty to each other (and therefore to the leadership of the Group) above all other loyalties – and have seen the viciousness with which such Groups can treat “heretics” in their own ranks.
Whilst the feminist slogan from long ago – that “the personal is political” – remains true it is sadly the case that for many Labour Councillors who face legitimate political criticism they prefer the inverse of that slogan and, believing that “the political is personal” use such influence as they have to settle scores with critics.
What is, however, more frightening than the brutality with which such Groups can treat the occasional transgressive left-winger is the fact that there are so few such transgressions. We have found ourselves in a world in which for a Labour Councillor to be a socialist is rare and exceptional – whereas to believe that property developers are our allies is commonplace.
(Just to be clear – property developers are never our allies. People who want to make money out of “regeneration” are never motivated by thoughts of the wellbeing of working class residents, but by considerations of their bank balances – quite possibly in some tax haven. No decent Labour Party member should ever trust someone motivated by profit).
The political project of those Labour Groups who cannot see beyond accommodation with the status quo of austerity has run its course. Where, as in South London, those who believe in this project can cling on to sufficient influence within the Party they may continue to chase their own delusions, but not for long.
The interesting question to which I want to turn is – what is the political project of the Labour Left for local government? I don’t ask this question as an interested observer but as a participant, and I offer an answer.
We want Labour Councillors who are “tribunes of the people” or (to use less pompous language) shop stewards for our local working class communities. What I want from a Labour Councillor is someone who will fight for working class people in the community in the way that the best shop stewards fight for workers in the workplace.
As trade unionists we know that we can be powerful but (if we understand trade unionism) we never forget that we are in opposition to the employer. We need Labour Councillors who also understand that they are never in charge of this society but always representatives of an oppressed (and yet insurgent) working class.
We need to encourage as many of our half million plus members as possible to consider themselves as potential local Councillors.
As someone who has spent a working life in local government I can assure you that there is no magic to being a local Councillor. I can state with absolute certainty that the average Labour Party member does not fall short of the ability of the average Councillor in any respect.
Our Labour Party needs as many people as possible to put themselves forward as potential Labour Councillors so that we can then exercise political choice about who we stand as Labour Councillors. We have a lot of work to do.