An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

How local government can help the Labour Party get serious about governing

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Cynicism is such a brutal word. It’s also not a straightforward one to define, as was pointed out to me. By and large, it is anathema to many on the left as suggesting compromising, trimming ‘our values’. And if we don’t have ‘our values’ then we are nothing.

Now I am not arguing in favour a value-less technocratic politics. But values are mere posts on a blog unless we can deliver the policy changes in office to match our words with our actions. A wise man once said:

Values unrelated to modern reality are not just electorally hopeless, the values themselves become devalued. They have no purchase on the real world. We won in the end not because we surrendered our values but because we finally had the courage to be true to them.

None of this is new. It’s the debate that the modernisers had through the 1980s and 1990s and it’s the message that Tony Blair continued to deliver to his last day in office. And nor is the current malaise as dramatic a debate as those battles against the old shibboleths and retrograde thinking of the far left. In some ways though, the lack of urgency in the internal conversations of the Labour Party is even more dangerous.

At national level we are constantly at risk of becoming irrelevant to the needs of the electorate because we can talk in the abstract about what should be done without having the responsibility of actually doing it. At local level in many areas of the country, Labour does not have that luxury. The majority of London’s boroughs have a Labour council. From the big cities in the north like Manchester and Newcastle to districts in the south like Stevenage and Gravesham, Labour is in power and facing the challenge of advancing a Labour political agenda right now.

Labour councils face vastly reduced budgets, an overmighty CLG bullying councils to adhere to tabloid tropes like weekly bin collections, and a general populace that is predisposed to believing councils to be wasteful, meddling and bureaucratic. They are operating within some of the toughest conditions local government has ever faced, and will have to wait until at least 2015 before their national counterparts can do anything about it. Labour councils cannot wait for the tide to turn and for Labour government to be returned to power. They have an obligation to deliver now, and that means taking pragmatic decisions to make tight budgets go further, to build more efficient and often smaller workforces, and to use the policy levers  that they still have (excellent post by Adele Reynolds at We Love Local Government about this by the way) to meet the needs and aspirations of their local area.

Councils budget meetings in many areas earlier in the year were beset by anti-cuts demonstrations, an extreme example of a left-wing tendency to view the politics of noisy outrage as a better response to the cuts that constructive local decision-making. Even mainstream Labour has shown discomfiting comfort in assuming oppositional stances. How much easier it is to attack a (phenomenally electorally successful) Tory council for ‘Thatcherite policies, than it is to show the good work of Labour councils, to think about how to work with them, even if the environment they work in is not the most welcoming.

Amid the noise, though, Labour is slowly expanding its local government base, and in doing so is not just attracting more members and activists, but is also constructing a base of achieving, pragmatic and connected local politicians. One of the challenges for the Labour Party organisationally that needs to be reflected in the Refounding Labour process is to decide how it will support and nurture that base. Councillors in leadership roles can bring new and distinctive voices to the fundamental conversations the party is having, because every day they have to answer the question upon which the party’s message will have to be built – what difference does the Labour Party make when it is in power?

Atul Hatwal on Labour Uncut this morning outlines the landscape facing the party both in London and nationally. It is worrying and should be taken seriously. As he writes:

The gap between Labour’s leaders and its former voters couldn’t be wider.

And in the middle, between disillusioned voters and leaders locked in a sociology seminar, sits the membership of the Labour party.

I would suggest that the top-tier of Labour’s pragmatic local government talent offers a way to help bridge that gap. Listen to the experiences of our  local politicians, give them the right support, and let them be the evangelists for the Labour Party as a serious governing proposition once more.

It was a rare local government pleasure this week to spend some time with Labour leaders from across London talking seriously about the political challenges the Labour Party and those of us in local politics face. This post draws on some of those conversations, but any errors, gaffes or dodgy political analysis should be blamed entirely on me.

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Written by samelliot

June 3, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Posted in Labour, Localism

One Response

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  1. […] is why there is a great danger for the Labour Party, as I said before, not of falling back into the hard-line divisiveness of the 1980s (which would at least demonstrate […]


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