Tuesday, January 30, 2018
Labour in local government is changing. Now is a good time to catch up.
I haven’t been blogging so much recently since there is less to say (in public) about leading the local Labour Party than there used to be about criticising the leadership of a trade union (although I wouldn’t want anyone to think those criticisms are not still valid – I wish well to all those candidates in the forthcoming elections for UNISON Service Group Executives who are supported by UNISON Action Broad Left. Union members need and deserve better).
However, on a day when it is clear just how uncomfortable it is for some of Labour’s elected representatives to come to terms with the leftward shift in our (mass) membership and – consequently – our policies it is necessary to say something. The rightly criticised Haringey Development Vehicle was simply a particularly extreme version of the “innovative” approach to swerving austerity by engaging with private sector or third sector providers which has been the hallmark of “New” Labour in its dotage.
I have witnessed the perennial failure of such “innovation” too many times. (It is not, of course, innovative to take services out of direct public sector provision. The very reason that the London County Council was established was because the former Metropolitan Board of Works, which managed delivery of public services by the private sector, was corrupt and inefficient. Pushing public services into the private (or so-called “third”) sector is just going back to “Victorian values”).
The truth is that you can never get a quart out of a pint pot, whether that pot is labelled “partnership”, “shared services” or even “cooperative” or “mutual”. It isn’t “innovative” to pretend otherwise, it’s just desperate (and wrong).
If you try to transfer public services to a charitable trust in the hope that there are tax advantages (i.e. dodges) to charitable status (or that this will open up income generation possibilities unavailable to a public authority) you won’t just find that the extra costs of keeping staff in the pension scheme will outweigh these benefits, you will also have to excuse taking governance of that service away from genuine accountability to elected Councillors and giving it in perpetuity to the “great and the good” who are trustees.
If you create a joint venture company with the private sector (and don’t kid anyone that isn’t what Housing Associations truly now are) so that the company can build “affordable” homes which are not Council homes then, whilst you avoid placing unrealistic demands on the Housing Revenue Account, you set out on a path which, whatever good it does, does not build (any number of) new Council homes. I was in at the birth of a joint venture company in Lambeth which was (at the time) the largest privatisation in the history of English local government. I also witnessed the slow failure of this ill-considered “innovation”.
Public services matter very much. They underpin civilisation. They are best provided by public servants, employed by the public sector, governed transparently and managed to deliver services rather than deliver “shareholder value” to anyone (or to support “third sector” entities which are never accountable in the way in which local authorities are).
I do understand why social democrat (and even – which is quite different – “New Labour”) Councillors sought out “innovative” ways to avoid the consequences for local government of the austerity policies of successive governments. No one wants to admit that they don’t have the power to do what they want to do.
However, where we are now in this country, with the real prospect of a socialist Labour Government, we don’t need such “innovatory” compromises. We need to develop in detail the policies to implement the improvement of public services for our working class communities to be funded by taxation of the rich and the corporations.
And where we are now in the Labour Party, with a (mass) membership of socialists who demand to be respected and heard, we need Labour Groups who can grow out of the isolation of the past and engage in an inclusive and democratic process of policy development which engages with our Party.
Everyone who can be part of this future must be welcome within it. We socialists must not and will not “purge” opponents as we ourselves have been treated in the past. We will simply encourage democracy and empower ordinary Labour Party members to take decisions for themselves.
Those who do not want to join us in building socialist politics for the twenty first century need not do so, and they will be best to join those who are stepping aside – but that will be their choice. All those who came to the Labour Party to make life better for our people should stay right here and join us in giving effect to our shared beliefs.