Welcome to local government week – the second year in a row in which we’ve worked with LabourList to provide a space to discuss and debate the role, contribution and work of Labour councils and councillors. We’ve assembled a great team of contributors from across the labour movement, who explore the important challenges and opportunities faced alongside our annual Labour Local Government Conference, which this year runs online from today, February 1st, through to Saturday, February 5th.
It has been a remarkable, gruelling and tragic 12 months since we last assembled for Labour Local Government Conference in Nottingham in February 2020. This time last year, we were reeling from the worst general election defeat in generations – but this year we’re still in the midst of the worst global pandemic in over a century, which has killed over 100,000 British people, and changed how all of us go about our daily business. Even the memory of how hundreds of councillors gathered together in person seems almost alien now, but I desperately hope that by this time next here we’ll be able to do so again.
I want to say a big thank you to Sienna and the LabourList team for agreeing to provide us a platform for discussion and debate again this year. We were delighted with how many councillors and members engaged with us, and we hope to generate just as much interest again this year. We’ve put together a great team of contributors from across the labour movement – including councillors, council leaders, mayors, Members of Parliament and trade unionists – all with a focus on the activities of Labour in local government.
Each day LabourList will publish articles on a daily theme that coincides with events at conference, starting with Monday’s contributors who focus on the role of councillors in the Labour Party. Coronavirus will inevitably be referenced throughout the week, but on Tuesday we will shine a spotlight on how Labour councils have protected their communities over the last 12 months. Although local elections in 2020 were postponed (and 2021 elections may yet be), and much campaigning activity has been curtailed by lockdown, we cannot shy away from the huge electoral challenges our party faces, and we’ll look to explore these further on Wednesday.
On Thursday, we’ll look at the biggest policy challenges in local government, with a particular focus on the huge challenge of reforming a health and social care system that the government has disastrously failed to properly protect. On Friday, we’ll explore the role of local government leadership in rebuilding our country and our party, ahead of Saturday’s keynote speech from Keir Starmer – and we’ll be looking at how he has sought to engage with local government in his first year of leadership.
The benefit of holding our conference online this year is that many more councillors and members will be able to take part. The Labour Local Government Conference usually attracts over 400 delegates, but we hope that many thousands will take part this year. All conference events are free and open to all Labour members, but registration is required – you can register here if you are a councillor, and here if you are a member.
The themes we will explore are not parochial to local government – as we’ve seen this year, councils are on the frontline of protecting citizens, and will need to be at the forefront of the recovery, too. The repeated failures of the national government over the last 12 months have exposed exactly why a centralised, one-size-fits-all approach ends up in catastrophe. Time and time again – from supplying personal protective equipment to Test and Trace, and from school closures to people who are shielding – councils have had to step in after Whitehall has failed. If the Labour Party is serious about seeking power in Westminster, it is crucial that they learn the lessons of the pandemic – and draw from the deep well of experience that Labour council leaders and councillors offer.
Localism makes sense in terms of delivering efficient and improved public services – not just in the midst of a pandemic but as we recover from it, too – but it also continues to offer a powerful political argument. Communities all over the have pulled together and supported each other through this crisis, but many have also expressed a feeling that they no longer have control over their own lives, even before the lockdowns curtailed our usual freedoms. While giving more power and freedom to local communities and councils won’t solve all our problems at a stroke, it is a vital step towards building a better future.
The recent announcement by Labour leader Keir Starmer of the establishment of a constitutional convention for the whole of the UK is an important opportunity for Labour in local government to shape that future. The announcement itself signals that our leadership understand that our existing structures are failing and that it is time for radical reform. This applies as much to England as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and we’ll certainly be making the argument for genuine regional and local devolution. Real devolution could become the driver of an economic recovery that benefits the entire country, and I look forward to hearing your views at conference events this week.
Thank you again to LabourList for working with us on local government week. I look forward to seeing the reactions and views put forward in the comments, and to hearing your views on Labour in local government’s role in rebuilding Britain.