Labour needs strong leadership – without power, you cannot do anything, a councillor writes

29th June, 2016 5:13 pm

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I have just approved the final plans for how my council will deal with the Tory Government’s absurd cuts to public health budgets. This will mean reductions in services that help people stay healthy and which ultimately can save the NHS money in the future. They are cuts that are short-sighted and will be damaging.

Similar decisions are taken every day by councils across the country. Six years into a Tory Government these decisions, taking money out of important public services, almost feel normalised. It is taken as a given that money is coming out of services and assumptions made that it will all be okay, somehow. As councillors, we argue against these cuts; we write to Ministers; we tell them about the damage the cuts will cause. Predictably, all of that falls on deaf ears.

This is the grim reality for Labour in local government with the Tories in Downing Street. Labour councillors are doing their best. However, the future is nothing but bleak. Local councils will be forced to make unprecedented spending reductions over the next few years. All service areas will be affected. The reality is that there is no choice anymore.

Labour-led councils will do all that can be done to prioritise the areas that matter the most. However, when we look at what local government does, we know it’s all important. It is the broad range of services councils provide taken as a whole which is the framework of strong communities and our endeavours to improve life chances. Ranking in order of importance early years services, youth unemployment programmes, care for the disabled and elderly, housing maintenance, public health services, libraries, economic development, tackling anti-social behaviour,  youth services, arts and museums and the rest is in no way an easy or desirable task.

These are all things that matter to those of us who believe in strong communities and social justice. The nightmare financial outlook for local government means that the toughest choices cannot be avoided in the coming years. Some would have us believe the cuts to our budgets can be ignored or “resisted” or that we can find a magic municipal credit card to see us through. Councils are draining their reserves to levels of minimum safety as part of financial strategies in face of what lies ahead.

These are not the decisions any of us in Labour local government, or indeed I believe many in other parties as well, came into politics to make. If we want to avoid these decisions and see local government’s future take a different path the only answer is Labour winning the next election.

This is why ensuring Labour is competitive come the next general election, whenever that might be, matters so much. It matters above all else. It is the most simple yet most important rule of politics: without power, you cannot do anything. Ask our MPs in Westminster what it feels like to be in opposition; no hands on the levers of power, no formal means by which to tackle the problems we see every day.

Those who shout to our MPs at the moment that politics is not a game are right. They are damn right. This is not a game. This is the time to get real. It is not just about last week’s referendum but those results showed once again the growing and acute challenge to ensure Labour voters in many areas hear Labour’s message.

Our future as a party, if we choose, could be as a credible force in local government in and around big, metropolitan areas but struggling to win the country. The truth is that to build a fairer and better society we need Labour controlling city and town halls but also Labour Ministers making decisions in Whitehall.

There are unavoidable questions Labour must now confront about its future direction. One path is for Labour in local government to be nothing more than the delivery arm of continued Tory dismantling of the state and public sector.

The alternative path is for Labour to do everything possible, including making difficult decisions now, to win back power nationally; to have Labour councils working with a Labour Government to repair the damage to early years services, to build a better care system, to tackle worklessness, to build new homes and to challenge poverty and disadvantage. That has to be Labour’s only mission, to be in Government, to be in power to change things. To do that Labour needs strong leadership, an ambitious and unifying vision and an unrelenting desire to win.

That is the only endgame that matters.

Rory Palmer is a Labour councillor and deputy city mayor of Leicester. He writes in a personal capacity.

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