Jim McMahon, Labour's leader in local governmnet, has a message for the Labour leadership candidates.
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Labour's leadership hopefuls have lessons to learn from the party's councillors

Devolution of powers, reform of the state, and above all, a clear idea of what Labour is for are required, says Jim McMahon.

The four contenders for Labour’s top job will be speaking at a local government hustings in Harrogate today. I would urge them to listen there to the councillors who run our grassroots campaigns and knock millions of doors every year for the party. I recently surveyed all six thousand Labour councillors across England and Wales. One in ten replied, whether in power locally or in opposition, from every sort of council and from every region. Their nationwide efforts shouldn’t be taken for granted and their insights from outside the Westminster bubble should be heard. So, what do Labour’s local champions want from the party’s next leader?

The issue that vexes us most is the prospect of yet more cuts to council services. On top of the 40 per cent of our funding we have already lost since 2010, we look set to lose another £3 billion next year alone and are heading towards a funding gap of £10bn by the end of the decade. The government insists on caricaturing councils as brimful of faceless bureaucrats, but people need to understand that this will mean swingeing cuts to public services that they do care about. Youth clubs, libraries and children’s centres will shut as a result. There may have to be reductions in social care for isolated adults and savings in children’s services for vulnerable kids. Four out of five Labour councillors believe that in the next two years some councils will go bust altogether. We need Labour nationally to argue for fair finance for local authorities, distributed according to need, and for councils to be able to keep revenue that’s locally raised. Then we can offer a meaningful alternative to the Tories’ miserable tale of managed decline.

A coherent, compelling narrative on the economy is essential. Labour’s local representatives believe that we lost the debate on the economy in 2010 and never recovered. Failure to command people’s trust and confidence there poses a credibility problem we cannot dodge. If we can’t defend our economic record, then no-one else will. And if we are not sure about the economic path we want to take, then nobody will follow. Our political economy needs a shakeup too. The state often props up the market with very little quid pro quo. To cut the housing benefit and tax credit bills, for example, we need to drive wages up and rents down in the private sector.

The country is suffering a chronic housing crisis. Supply is badly outstripped by demand. Too many of the homes we have are sitting empty or falling apart. Regeneration since 2010 has ground to a halt. But new government policy will make matters worse. The forced sale of ‘high-value’ council homes that the government is proposing, for example, is an exercise in asset-stripping that will, over time, segregate mixed urban communities into separate city centres for the rich and banlieues for the poor.

On welfare, the government seems determined to try to balance the nation’s books on the backs of the poor. The contributory principle that people must put in as well as get out is important, but so is having a system that provides the right incentives, safeguards people’s dignity and supports them at times of need. After the Chancellor’s £12bn of cuts to social security in his budget next week, the nation’s safety net will be left dangerously threadbare. As the welfare system is hacked back, it is councils that are left to pick up the pieces at the taxpayer’s expense.

The machinery of government also needs rewiring. When Labour was last in power we kept a lot of decision-making at the centre, in England at least. We now need a principle of subsidiarity that insists that power, resources and responsibility should rest at the most appropriate level to address a given issue: devolution by default, not outdated deference to Westminster and Whitehall. Britain’s regions have different characters and differing needs. They ought to be able to organise public services in their area in the most effective way for their local population, especially when one-size-fits-all national approaches have failed, as they have in vital areas like employment and skills. Devolved transport has worked well in London. I have high hopes for the devolved and integrated approach to health and social care we are now taking in Greater Manchester. But devolution should be on offer to all parts of the country, be they collections of coastal towns or former industrial areas, not just a handful of major city regions with their metro-mayors. Unequal devolution runs the risk of entrenching inequality. But, done right, devolution offers a route to renewing a sense of belonging and restoring local pride.

Labour in parliament must now prove an effective Opposition. While the party picks its top team, our MPs must take the government to task, all the time looking outwards to serve and speak up for the people who put them there. We cannot cede the political frame for this parliament the way we did in 2010.  We need to learn the lessons of the past five years. During that time, neither the party’s policy offer nor its on-the-ground organisation was bad. Its communication was weak though and its core message was unclear. We have to choose a strong, decisive leader who can tell a convincing story about the sort of country we want to be. We must be seen to stand for something. Whether our candidates are up against Conservatives or UKIP in 2020, clarity of definition, confidence and purpose are what our movement now needs.

Cllr Jim McMahon OBE is the Leader of Oldham Council  and the Leader of Labour in Local Government

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt