Labour’s councillors need to be at the heart of this leadership contest

5th June, 2015 1:44 pm

Out of power in Westminster for five years, Labour’s 73 councils up and down the country are now the main shop window for showing how we put our values into practice.

Labour has been delivering the kind of government people want throughout the past five years, just at a local level. Working with business. Innovating in how we deliver services. Making tough decisions.

Day in, day out, Labour’s councillors are offering local leadership, driving reform, promoting regeneration and delivering for our communities in a way that is denied to our frontbench colleagues in Parliament.

local

So the perspective of Labour local government must be a central voice in this leadership election. We need a leader and deputy leader that understand the importance of what we do and, as they set out their vision and approach, offer an inspiring message to our 7,127 individual councillors.

Those of us running local Labour administrations are often making painful and difficult austerity-inspired decisions, cutting many services and rationing even more. In my own council, Liverpool, we will have undergone government cuts of 58 per cent between 2010 and 2017, some £330 million taken out of our local economy.

The effects are obvious enough. We can do much less than we used to be able to do, even though demand for key services is growing. The effects are most telling on the poorest and we jointly commissioned research in our ground-breaking ‘Getting By?’ report to give a voice to their plight.

But our next leader’s vision for local government needs to move beyond austerity and set out a clear, long-term commitment to the devolution of power and funding. What are local councils for and what powers do they need to fulfil their role?

A better deal on funding 

As a starter, we need to hear that the urgent, demand-driven pressures on services like adult social care will be urgent key priorities for Labour’s next leader. The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services yesterday reported that funding for these lifeline services will fall by £1.1 billion this year, on top of savage cuts since 2010 that have seen budgets slashed by nearly a third.

At the other end of the age spectrum, we need to address the looming crisis over school places and ring-fence funding for the vital work of our children’s centres.

We also need a long-term national funding formula that addresses need and hardship. We have the perverse situation where the poorest parts of the country are often left dealing with the most severe cuts to their budgets. Don’t take my word for it, read the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies’ damning assessment.

The average government funding cut, per dwelling, in Liverpool is £767. Down the road from us in Cheshire East, its £77. So Liverpool is hit ten times harder than one of the most affluent boroughs in the country. Which also happens to include the Tatton constituency of George Osborne. In West Oxfordshire, the figure is £31. The local MP is David Cameron. Coincidence?

We need to hear Labour’s next leader give this grossly unfair state of affairs greater prominence and call for a funding formula based on fairness and transparency, once and for all.

Genuine localism

The candidates need to accept that localism is more than just a trendy term. The next leader of our party needs to learn to sever the Whitehall puppet strings. We need to see an approach that trusts local councils – the most innovative part of the public sector – to know what is best for their communities and to be given the powers and budgets to get on with it.

It is a sorry state of affairs that it takes a Conservative Chancellor to finally plough through proposals for a “Northern Powerhouse”. We will be pushing George Osborne to back up his rhetoric with hard cash, but I honestly can’t quibble with his direction of travel.

More responsive Whitehall

The Department of Communities and Local Government was used by Eric Pickles for political grandstanding and trouble-making. His replacement by Greg Clark has been widely welcomed. But what is the DCLG for?

For too long, civil servants have sat in Whitehall, dreaming-up ways of interfering with what councils do, while adding little value. We need a smaller, reformed DCLG, more focused on sharing best practice between councils. We could start by moving the department lock, stock and barrel out of London. In fact, send it to Liverpool and I will find it a nice office.

Furthermore, we need more local government voices at every level of the party’s decision-making. How about including co-opted representatives to sit in the shadow cabinet?

The renewal of our party and the agenda of our next leader must include learning lessons from our army of local councillors. They are the ones making decisions and representing our party on the frontline, every single day.

Joe Anderson is Labour Mayor of Liverpool

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