Labour councils are the light at the end of this long, dark economic tunnel

The party's councils are filling the vacuum left by government inaction.

Councils up and down the land are facing their greatest financial crisis for generations. The coalition cuts are brutal and local communities and services are suffering enormously as a consequence. The poorest areas are being hit the hardest and the most vulnerable are suffering the most - such is Tory-led Britain.

As in any storm, councils can stay still and be swept away or get stuck in and survive. Those who innovate will go from strength to strength, while those who counsel despair will sink into a slough of despondency and take their communities with them.

And Labour councils are finding new ways to express and act on their values: fairness, mutual support and social justice.  A new report – One Nation Localism – shows exactly how. Innovating and taking action where they can, they are helping people in real ways despite these tough times. In a sense, this provides hope that an Ed Miliband-led "one nation" government will be able to pursue social justice even though the economic and fiscal climate left behind by a failed Tory and Liberal Democrat administration will be ferocious. It also shows that social justice relies on local innovation and action.

Local government funding is already being cut by a third and austerity is set to continue until at least 2018. In the pervading doom and gloom, it feels hard to be optimistic – where will the good news come from? And how can Labour present an alternative approach that shows you can deliver on your values even when money is tight?
  
There is no greater challenge than creating jobs and opportunity, as government inaction leaves an enormous vacuum – which Labour councils are filling. Just take Newham council’s new workplace scheme which has helped 5,000 people into work last year- many of them long-term unemployed. After the government disbanded Labour’s Future Jobs Fund, Nottingham council established their own to support young people in the city into employment. In areas as far and wide as Knowsley, Darlington and Plymouth the councils are working with local businesses to create apprenticeships and work opportunities to match out-of-work residents to.
 
The housing crisis continues but Labour councils are doing all they can to alleviate it in the short term and overcome it in the long term. Islington and Manchester are pioneering new models of investment in conjunction with council pension funds, to boost the supply of new affordable homes. Many more people are being forced to rent given the affordable homes crisis – and councils like Blackpool, Oxford and Newham are developing approaches to licensing to tackle rogue landlords and increase quality.
 
The need to overcome inequality and tackle poverty is of course at the heart of Labour councils,who see this as their core purpose. Up and down the country, in Liverpool, Newcastle, Blackpool, Sheffield , Leicester and Islington, Labour councils have set up Fairness Commissions to identify the challenges in their area and provide a framework to guide their decisions so they maximise their impact on narrowing inequality gaps. In Islington, for example, this has led to the council becoming a living wage employer and reducing its internal pay differential. In Liverpool a new approach to procurement looks to employ firms which can demonstrate clear benefits to local jobs and skills.

Twenty one Labour-led authorities have committed to a Co-operative Council approach, developing new ways of running public services to shift power and control out of town halls and into the hands of citizens. In Oldham, this means the council is finding new ways to work on the side of residents and seeking to remove barriers for them – whether by devolving significant power and funding to six districts within the borough with more direct community oversight or through a new Energy Co-operative that enables households to save up to £150 a year on their energy bills.
 
Taken separately, these initiatives show that given determination, councils can work to meet the needs of their residents against the odds – even though the overall national context still takes an enormous toll on people’s lives. Taken together, they chart a new agenda for Labour which recognises that even in a tight financial environment it is possible to take decisions in a fairer way. By adapting innovation to local circumstance, the one nation vision of a society bound together can be achieved without it becoming a ‘one size fits all’. In fact, is clear that greater social justice relies on different responses in different communities. Through localism, Labour’s values have become a practical reality.

One set of values, one nation, but many approaches – this is the mantra of a Labour localism. Hope is scarce resource in Tory-led Britain, but Labour in local government is digging its heals in to at least provide people with some hope despite the gloom. 

Cllr David Sparks is leader of the LGA Labour Group and leader of Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council.  One Nation Localism is available here

Cllr David Sparks is leader of the LGA Labour Group and leader of Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.