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

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I didn't expect to have to choose between a boyfriend and Judi Dench - but it happened

He told me I'd spoiled the cruise by not paying him enough attention. But what was I to do when Dame Judi Dench asked for a chat?

This happened around 20 years ago, in the days when a new boyfriend was staying at my house. One quite memorable mid-morning, the phone rang while we were in bed and it was the editor of the Times; then it rang again (when we were still in bed) and it was Dame Judi Dench. Yes, Judi Dench.

I was as surprised as anyone would be. True, I had recently written a radio monologue for her (about a wistful limpet stuck on a rock), but I hadn’t attended the recording, so I had never met her, or expected ever to hear her say, “Hello, is that Lynne Truss?” in that fabulous Dame Judi voice that only she possesses.

She said that she and her husband, Michael, were often invited to perform public readings; could I help by writing something? Stunned, I said that I would love to. She gave me her number. I hung up.

I can’t remember why I didn’t jump straight out of bed to start work on the Dame Judi project. But what I do remember is that when the phone rang yet again, we ignored it, on the grounds that, post-Judi, it could only be a disappointment.

A few months later, I was invited on a winter cruise, sailing from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Singapore. I took the boyfriend. It was only when we were changing planes at 3am that I spotted, among the other dog-tired passengers, Dame Judi with a group of friends.

Nervously, I went and said hello, what a coincidence. She said that we must talk. Then the holiday began and the boyfriend and I had a wonderful time. We met nice people and enjoyed the ship, although we consistently failed to identify our allotted muster station.

At the end of ten days, we were sitting on deck at Singapore, when I said, “Well, wasn’t that lovely?”

The boyfriend took me aback by saying, “Actually, glad you asked. No, it wasn’t.” I had spoiled the whole experience, he said, by continually talking to other people when I should have been talking to him.

I was very upset. All this time, he’d been unhappy? Casting my mind back, I realised it was true that I had made friends on board (and he hadn’t); also, at dinner, I had openly talked to the person sitting beside me, because I thought you were supposed to.

And now I stood accused of cruise-ruining! “I’ll get us some tea,” I said. “Oh, yes?” he fumed. “You’ll be gone for an hour, as usual.” And I said “No, I won’t. I promise.”

And so I went inside, wiping away my tears, and someone started chatting to me and I squeaked, “Can’t stop.” After that, I just slalomed through the throng with my head down.

Then, as I re-emerged into the sunlight with a prompt, relationship-saving cup and saucer in each hand, there was Judi Dench, and she said, “Shall we have our little chat now?” 

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad