The news of Claire Kober’s resignation as leader of Haringey council should cause the entire Labour movement to pause. How did the party get to a place where it chose to cannibalise its most senior woman in local government and one of Labour’s most successful council leaders ever?
It’s worth stepping back to remind ourselves of Kober’s decade-long tenure. She took over in the aftermath of the death of Peter Connelly (known to the shocked British public as Baby P), when Haringey’s name was synonymous with the worst type of public service failure. In the ten years since, she’s turned the authority around, not least transforming children’s services into a place where vulnerable children can not just survive but thrive. And she has achieved so much more – she has transformed perceptions of Haringey, bringing investment and opportunity to a borough with some of the UK’s poorest communities. Isn’t this what Labour in government is supposed to do? Claire should be lauded for her leadership. Instead she’s been demonised, and in a way that should worry everyone who cares about Labour and local government.
Kober resigned a week after the Labour’s National Executive Committee asked the Labour-led Haringey Council to stop its regeneration plans. Such interference is unprecedented – which is why huge numbers of Labour council leaders opposed it at the weekend. They are right to be concerned and right to stand in numbers against it (the resignation of Kober herself will be effective from May, when she will not stand for re-election).
Labour in local government, is visionary, radical and putting into practice a true alternative to the Tories’ depressing vision of our country. The conditions for councils since the cuts started in 2010 have been abysmal. This has meant tough and unpopular choices. It has meant standing up to vested interests. And it has meant trying to shield some our poorest and most vulnerable people from the worst excesses of a Tory government. By and large, Labour in local government has been incredibly successful at this. Our record, including Haringey’s, should make any Labour member proud. We’ve delivered living wages, new council housing, tackled rogue landlords, increased child care provision, helped people back in to work, delivered investment, growth and jobs for our areas, recycled our budgets to the benefit of local business, and led the way on a host of employee rights. Look at any Labour town hall anywhere in the country and you’ll see achievements like these, and more. This is municipal socialism.
To deliver in the boldest traditions of Labour, we’ve also had to do things none of us got in to politics for. To understand which services weren’t performing, or what can we do without. None of these decision have been easy and they certainly haven’t been popular. This has meant at any given time pretty much every Labour group has had a small group of councillors who oppose decisions. That’s politics. But if council leaderships aren’t 100 per cent sure they can manage that dissatisfaction themselves, within their own collective responsibility and procedures, then they’ll start to second guess what the NEC might do. A minority of councillors (it was a minority in Haringey Labour Group) in any group anywhere in country could try to hold its leadership hostage. This risk is particularly acute given the clear lack of basic due process in the NEC’s decision making. None of this is how representative democracy works and it could easily make for more conservative decisions in town halls. It will force out some of the bravery and radicalism.
Moreover, the mediation proposed by the NEC was bound to fail. Haringey Labour had done nothing illegal and nothing counter to party’s rules that may justify an intervention. Local councils are autonomous bodies. They simply can’t accede to a situation where party processes can override the democratic governance of a borough.
It needs spelling out: mediation could not have delivered a workable solution. Either for Haringey’s Labour group or Haringey’s council officers. The Labour group – the legally and democratically constituted administration of the council, would necessarily have to concede to do something that a majority of them didn’t support.
Council officers are empowered to act by their political masters. They can’t take instructions from another organ of a political party, and they can’t take instructions from candidates who aren’t yet elected. In fact, they have legal duties not to. The NEC process effectively sought to overrule 2014’s local government elections, and if that wasn’t bad enough, it did so without any viable alternative way of running Haringey. It is appalling and unfathomable that the NEC would put itself in this position.
The final depressing part of this sorry mess is Labour’s woeful record on getting women in to leadership positions in local government. Fewer than one in five of Labour’s council leaders are women. Last week we saw another all-white all-male shortlist for a metro mayor candidate. As I said at the beginning, Claire was Labour’s most senior woman in local government, one of it’s most successful council leaders ever. For the sake of factional interest, people who claim to support the pursuit of equality have forced her out.
I hope beyond hope, that, with Claire’s resignation the NEC will step back from the brink and resolve not to act in this way in future. I fear however, it will just embolden them.
Sarah Hayward is a Labour councillor in Camden and the former leader of Camden Council.