There is a rise of the mini-state resulting from the localisation of parts of the social security system. Photo: Getty
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The dark side of localisation: when boroughs want to keep "council tax tourists" out

For those on a lower income or not working, some boroughs are considerably more welcoming than others.

In the 1949 Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, residents of the London borough set themselves up as a separate state with predictably comic results. When Pimlico’s governing committee lifts post-war rationing, shoppers flood to the new dominion only to find themselves trapped when its borders are later closed. As the local policeman puts it to one hapless refugee, “You should never have travelled abroad without your passport, madam”.

You’d think this farce had more relevance in Cold War Europe than Britain in 2014 but a court decision against Sandwell Council last week suggests otherwise. In this case, the local authority had required its residents live in the borough for two years before being entitled to council tax reduction.

Sandwell’s reason for the rule was clear: to protect itself from “benefit tourists”. Interestingly, the council wasn’t referring to non-citizens here but instead, to anyone from out of the borough moving into the area as a result of changes to benefit entitlement. The message to these “visitors” was clear: don’t come to Sandwell without your passport.

The judge in the case was unequivocal in his condemnation of the policy, describing Sandwell as “plunging into unlawfulness”. But this is just one example of the rise of the mini-state resulting from the localisation of parts of the social security system which is creating unfairness all around.

A recent report on the localisation of council tax reduction schemes in London, for example, has shown that hardship depends very much on your postcode. Z2K, the authors of the report, met “Maria”, a woman caring for her disabled son full-time and struggling to stretch her benefits to pay £6 each week in council tax. She lives in Harrow, where charges are among the highest in London. In contrast, her sister who lives a few stops down the Bakerloo Line in Westminster doesn’t pay any council tax at all.

The report also showed that there are huge variations in how councils enforce council tax collection from their poorest residents. How likely you are to be charged for falling into arrears, how much you will be charged, and whether you are likely to have a bailiff knocking on your door all vary dramatically between boroughs. Perhaps most shockingly, the report shows that in 2013/14, over £10m was charged to London’s poorest residents in court charges when they fell behind on payments.

Council tax benefit isn’t the only part of the social security system that has been localised, however. In April 2013, local authorities were also handed control of parts of the social fund, and have since had the unenviable task of providing support to vulnerable people while at the same time the funds for such schemes have been cut.

It’s no surprise, then, that councils have had to put in place various rationing arrangements. The evidence shows that some have simply drawn the criteria for local welfare support so tightly their schemes have effectively withered and died. But others have taken the Sandwell approach, introducing a residency rule on which access to local welfare assistance is conditioned. As a result, in some parts of the country, a woman fleeing across boroughs to escape a violent partner is ineligible for support to set up a home for her and her children.

How much you notice the rise of the mini-state depends disturbingly on how much you earn. If you are in secure employment, getting a decent wage, you might not notice these changes – unless of course you lost your job or got sick. For those on a lower income or not working, however, some boroughs are considerably more welcoming than others. Passport to Pimlico may be hugely entertaining, but the destitution that many are experiencing as a result of the real-life shenanigans of localisation is anything but.

Megan Jarvie is London campaigns coordinator for the Child Poverty Action Group and Lindsay Judge is senior policy and research officer for the Child Poverty Action Group.

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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.