Politicians are shaped by the times in which we serve. For those of us in local government during the last decade, our experiences have been overshadowed by the onset of austerity and its continuation beyond most expectations. Budget cuts exceeding 40 per cent cannot be reconciled through good financial management alone. Our councils have taken tough decisions. But they’ve also demonstrated levels of creativity and innovation that a decade ago few would have thought possible. I chose to characterise my authority’s approach by saying we cannot be in the business of managing decline.
But what does all this mean in a new political era, with the growth of populism, protectionism and the mainstreaming of radical politics? If local government is anything to go by, we are witnessing a clash of the politics of pragmatism and the politics of ideology, the likes of which hasn’t been seen for 35 years. In a context where pragmatism is pushed to one side, it is ultimately our communities who will lose out. Political honesty is desperately needed, along with an understanding that all sectors can be good, just as they can all have problems and failures. Effective partnerships must sit at heart of the solution.
The experience of delivery in spite of cuts, of finding new and creative ways to tackle the intractable issues of our times – be that the housing crisis or how we assist low income earners to progress in work – are just the sorts of areas where our party should be looking to those of us in local government for advice. Instead, last week, in response to a letter sent to members by a group of my councillors, Labour’s National Executive Committee passed a motion calling on me to halt Haringey’s plans for a housing joint venture.
No attempt was made to contact me before, during or immediately after the now infamous meeting of the NEC. This is not only disrespectful to me and my colleagues, but speaks volumes about the esteem in which Labour local government is held by some in our national party. It is unbecoming of the national executive of a government-in-waiting to discuss a policy based simply on the account of those opposed to it.
Most NEC members know little about my borough or how our capital’s housing crisis manifests itself in Haringey. I suspect many don’t know about the 3,000 families in temporary accommodation – among the highest of any London borough – whose lives are characterised by insecurity. They may also be unaware of the 9,000 families on the housing waiting list, whose prospects of a social tenancy are being diminished as Right to Buy sales increase and housing associations convert vacant properties to Affordable Rent. Perhaps they don’t know that there are children referred to social services purely as a result of their family’s inadequate housing situation. Ideological dogma will do nothing to improve their lives: only a determination to find practical solutions, in partnership with other sectors, offers them any realistic prospect of a better, more secure future.
For me, the responsibility of political power is to work to improve people’s lives, even when that means finding solutions that don’t fit in best, ideologically comfortable solutions. Political issues are rarely black and white, and solutions are not good or bad: political leadership is about setting a vision and working to deliver on it using whatever tools are available. That is how we deliver improved outcomes for the communities that seek to gain most from Labour in government, be that local or national. The principle of autonomous local government is a cornerstone of our democracy. It is one I had hoped that the national executive of my party would share.
Earlier this week, I announced my intention to step down as council leader in May. After 10 years in the role, my decision was founded in my belief that the time is right to move on. But I also felt it important that I used my announcement to call out the political bullying and sexism that have defined my last two years in the role.
People have subsequently said very nice things about what has been achieved on my watch. But sometimes it’s a case of what people don’t say. If proof were needed of how toxic the debate on housing and regeneration – and the private sector – has become, just look at what people have praised me for. Barely a mention of our success in turning around perceptions of the borough that were reinforced by the 2011 Tottenham riots. Almost no word of the £3.5bn inward investment attracted, the regeneration schemes stalled for decades that are now on site. That is too toxic in today’s politics. Almost universally, people have highlighted our schools’ improvement story – today all but one of our schools is rated good or outstanding up from 65 per cent five years ago. An exceptional achievement, but undoubtedly much safer territory.
During the past twelve months I’ve seen this first hand in the febrile political debate around Haringey’s proposed development vehicle. It’s well understood that London is in the grip of a housing crisis. Small scale solutions will not produce enough homes to tackle the crisis. That’s why, following extensive and careful discussion on all possible options, councillors chose in 2015 to pursue setting up a joint venture to match private sector expertise and capital with public sector assets and land. I’m proud that we have procured a well-established private sector partner, and I remain convinced of the approach. However, it will now be for a new council administration to decide whether to sign the legal agreement establishing the HDV.
I hope that a new leadership in Haringey, will look at the facts before them, be open-minded about how best to solve the challenges they face, and think about the people they serve as much as the party to which they belong.
Claire Kober is the leader of Haringey Council.