Labour councillors at the coal face of day-to-day political decision making have been put on notice by their Westminster leadership. Housing policies which advance a Tory agenda of gentrification and the break up of working-class communities must be shelved. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters insist there is no need to wait for the MP for Islington North to move into 10 Downing Street before implementing his radical ideas.
Laura Pidcock, the newly-elected MP for North West Durham, is seen as a Corbynista rising star. At an event organised by Momentum during the Labour Party conference in Brighton, she told an audience that local authorities can provide a resistance to government policies ahead of the election of a Corbyn-led government.
When I contacted her recently she was at pains to underline that she expects the government to fall within a year. However, if it does survive the full term, with or without Theresa May at its helm, she believes Labour councils should collectively organise to resist government policies.
This would not be the first time local authorities organised an active resistance to Westminster but it is a strategy that comes with its own challenges.
In the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher, certain Labour-run councils used the tactic of “illegal budgets” to refuse to pass on cuts, often controversially (in 1985, John McDonnell, now shadow chancellor, was fired from his position on the GLC finance committee for ignoring spending cuts). The stand off between local and national government culminated in a financial crisis in Liverpool, with the council forced to send redundancy notices to 31,000 council workers, dispatched by private cab. Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s decision to seize on the moment is seen as a turning point in the battle between Labour’s left and right during that decade.
Calls for “no cuts budgets” have re-emerged with the rise of Corbyn, but in 2016, in the face of opposition from the left, Labour passed a rule change which would prevent councils from acting on their demands.
Pidcock struck a more moderate tone. She acknowledged it was futile for individual councils to act alone and to threaten to force through illegal budgets.
She also refused to condemn councils which have set up controversial Arms Length Management Organisations to outsource services.
She said: “That’s a position councils have been forced into. I’m sure they would not want to put services out to ALMOs. It’s just the culture. You have to understand the culture of politics is a product of austerity.”
Her comments came as the cabinet member for housing in the Labour-led Rochdale Borough Council, said that a town centre regeneration plan “smacks of social cleansing” and would exacerbate homelessness in Greater Manchester.
The former council housing stock is now managed by Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, a charitable trust. It has posted a statement on its website which says: “Our proposals are completely contrary to ‘social cleansing’. We have guaranteed that all residents who want to stay in the town centre will be able to do so if plans to redevelop College Bank and Lower Falinge go ahead. Our plans would provide a net increase in the total number of homes in the area.”
In September, Corbyn told his party conference in Brighton that the next Labour government would force council to hold ballots of local residents before undertaking regeneration projects.
Corbyn’s announcement drew a rapid reposnse from Labour councillor Alan Strickland, cabinet member for housing and regeneration in Haringey, North London, who insisted yes/no ballots had no place in the council’s policy making procedures. (A spokesman for the council told me it would not provide a comment for this article.)
He is not alone in his opposition, with other councillors highlighting the pressure local authorities already face when allocating homes. In Birmingham, the cabinet member for housing and homes, councillor Peter Griffiths, said that ballots are not the ideal way to decide housing policy. He said the authority works with people who want to return to the same area but “decisions must be based on our allocations policy, so we have to ensure people are given the size of property they’re entitled to”.
He said: “We’re keen to talk to the Labour party nationally about our emerging policy and I would be happy to share the Birmingham experience with Jeremy Corbyn and his team.
“We’re just about to consult with over 2,000 households in the Druids Heath area of the city and it’s important to help people understand the options for redevelopment. Just as we have done in other areas of the city, we want to work with people to get the best end result.
“This is not about destroying communities. It’s about making sure people across Birmingham have homes and neighbourhoods to be proud of.”
That’s an aspiration no politician would claim to oppose. But decisions over how to chart a route to that desirable outcome are likely to put further strain on the estranged relationship between the Labour front bench and city council leaders.