The resignation of Claire Kober, the beleaguered leader of Haringey Council, brought to a close one of the most significant internal conflicts of the Corbyn-era Labour Party. It marked the end of the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), the multi-billion pound housing programme which critics argued would amount to a policy of privatisation and social cleansing. By the end, those critics include both MPs and constituency Labour parties in the borough, a large minority of Kober’s own councillors, and, in the end, Labour’s national executive, whose intervention against the HDV was slammed by Labour Council leaders as “uncomradely, disrespectful, and wilfully [ignorant of] the difficult and challenging role we play in doing our best to protect the most vulnerable”.
To a great extent, Labour’s moderates have responded so sharply to the situation in Haringey because they know it represents a threat to their power in the party. Labour councils are a bastion of the party’s centrist wing, so much so that during the leadership election of 2016, when Corbyn scored 62 per cent of the vote, he could get barely a quarter of Owen Smith’s support among councillors. Councillors are not just titles – they provide a network of activity and prestige in local parties. A surging membership with politics well to the left of the average Labour council, along with the left’s willingness to use its NEC majority to change the rules, has the power to fundamentally alter Labour at a local level.
Haringey tells both sides of the party the story they want to hear. On one hand a hostile Momentum takeover, backed up by a central Party dictat to hardworking public servants. On the other, an out of touch elite, holding the community and the party membership in contempt. For campaigners and party members, situations like this are familiar. Teaching assistants in County Durham struck last year over plans to cut their pay by up to 23 per cent. Lambeth Council faced major opposition from workers and the community when it closed down libraries in 2016. In both cases, local party members and constituency parties supported the strikers, but the Labour council went ahead anyway.
But after all the bitter arguments, what is missing – even in Haringey, where activists opposed to the HDV will have a majority on the Council after the May elections – is a full blown strategy for doing things differently. With councils like Haringey seeing a 40 per cent cut in central government funding since 2010, and the most deprived local councils experiencing cuts ten times greater than wealthier ones, how can Labour stop local government from being little more than a delivery mechanism for austerity?
Accountability must be the starting point for a new Labour strategy in local government. Unlike MPs, councillors do face mandatory reselection, but in many local parties the shortlisting process serves to narrow the range of political viewpoints on offer. Once elected, they must be completely loyal to the whip. Voting against the line means being suspended from the Labour Group and barred from running in future elections. This is a system designed to concentrate power in the hands of council leaderships, at the expense of local parties and communities.
To be an effective party of local government, accountability must flow from the bottom up, not the top down. Shortlisting processes must be overhauled and standardised, giving members a real choice in who their councillors are. Council Leaders are major politicians, with far more power than most MPs. They should be elected by a ballot of the local membership when Labour is running a local authority. Dissent and debate must be cherished, not punished, and new ideas must be welcomed. This means giving local members – via their constituencies and wards – a binding say over the policy and strategy of labour councils, not just access to a consultation on the manifesto every few years.
The issue of how to actually resist cuts is undoubtedly thornier. Whereas in previous decades Labour councils could refuse to implement cuts and be fined or be imprisoned, now central government has the power to simply remove them from office and install its own commissioners. But the really striking thing about successful local government campaigns against austerity is that they never hinged entirely refusing to pass a budget as a financial tactic – though this was often crucial – but on having the backing of a mobilised local community and a wider movement against austerity.
In Clay Cross in 1973, and in Poplar in 1921, Labour councils defied the law and ran campaigns of mass mobilisation to defend public services, and won. To make campaigns like this effective now, national coordination among councils would be essential. In the 1980s, dozens of Labour councils, led among others by David Blunkett and Margaret Hodge, refused to comply with Thatcher’s rate capping, though in the end all buckled. In 1984, setting illegal budgets was official Labour policy. But in the post-New Labour world, talk of resisting cuts from local government has become taboo, and no serious strategic conversation has taken place since.
The situation in local government presents Labour with a limited set of options, all of which are painful. Internal conflict is not good for electoral prospects, but having councils implement cuts and privatisation schemes, without the consent of the local community, is not tenable for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Labour’s council leaderships – in Haringey and across the country – might claim they have no choice. But when many of the most controversial schemes, such as the HDV, are a matter of choice, and no coordinated strategy to resist cuts exists, local members and constituents are right to ask questions.