Welcome to the local politics section of LabourList. For the party it’s been a long time coming. As someone with a reasonable party record (joined 1973) it’s fair to say that Labour local government lost its way in the 1980s (the failure of Hackney council to collect the bins regularly from the Blair household seemingly cast a long shadow over local/national understanding in our years of government). What is perhaps less fair is that the party nationally and in parliament still prefers to hold its local councillors at arms length. Evidence for this view? Well take a look at the fringe guide for this year’s conference. Amid the plethora of shadow cabinet, ‘experts’ and academics you will struggle to find the voice of labour politicians who actually run large organisations and make serious decisions. The lofty Fabians, true to their centralist traditions, don’t have a single Labour councillor in its extensive conference programme.
Again does it matter? Well quietly and without much national attention the number of Labour councillors has doubled over the last two years and now stands over 6000. Labour councillors matter to the party. In most constituencies they are the front line of party activity and voter contact. In marginal constituencies such as Westminster North they are the difference between winning and losing. Again if you want evidence ask the Rt Hon John Healy MP whose impressive research before the 2010 General Election indicated the clear correlation between parliamentary majorities and the number of Labour councillors. It matters too in a much more direct way for the party. Through voluntary contributions Labour councillors contribute over a million pounds a year to the national party. If that was an affiliation fee only Unite would have a bigger bloc vote. And what do Labour councillors get in return? Well compared to five years ago – no local government section, no newsletters/advice notes and no spring conference. Talk about rewarding success! To our shame if you want to see a party effectively support its councillors you have to go on the web-site of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors.
OK, what needs to change? Well the party nationally and in parliament needs to start listening to Labour councillors and its leaders. And I mean really listening not just inviting the Leader of the LGA Labour Group to an occasional Shadow Cabinet meeting. Need an example of what happens when we don’t? Well as the champagne corks were popping with the cancellation of the parliamentary boundary review the silent assassin that is Individual Voter Registration carries on its legislative journey. So far the party’s response is to put its community organising hat on and announce a party voter registration campaign. Great headlines but we were addressing the wrong question. For the benefit of some of our recent campaign advisers Britain is not the USA. We do not have a history of voluntary registration or voter suppression. What we do have is a proud record of voter registration by local authorities which supports the electoral process and the judicial one through jury service. We need to ensure that the process of registration remains obligatory and use the expertise that exists in local government to make individual registration much easier at national as well as local level.
For Labour local government if we want to restore a mature relationship at national level we have to change a few things too. We have to be more confident. During the last Labour government we too often allowed other organisations nationally and locally to take the credit for our achievements. Frankly there were times when if Labour local government had been a child I would have taken it in care the amount of neglect it was receiving. Also too many groups and parties allow mediocre councillors and leaders to go unchallenged. We have to get much better at selling the role of councillor to capable party members and supporters.
In the time of plenty we often sat by and let huge swathes of public services be effectively hijacked by professional vested interests who turned patronising working class families into an art form. For the foreseeable future Liam Byrne was right and the money has gone. Labour local government now has the responsibility of spending the public money that remains wisely and with different priorities to the Coalition Government. Over the next few days and weeks LabourList will be giving the wider Labour movement real examples of how Labour councils are giving their residents some hope in these difficult times. I look forward to the debate and a new and adult relationship between the party and its councillors.
Paul Wheeler is Director of the Political Skills Forum. You can contact him at email@example.com or 07884 3122238 if you have a story to tell about Labour Local Government.