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As austerity continues, so will friction between Labour councils and activists

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LGC commentary on Labour’s intervention in Haringey LBC 

There were warnings signs for local government at the Labour party conference in September last year.

An atmosphere of cultish devotion (ooohhh) to Jeremy Corbyn, was cut with creeping unease among many Labour councillors as barbed criticisms of the party’s councils were dispatched by bullish members from the conference stage. Speakers accused these councils of betraying socialist ideals and being willing agents of austerity by cutting services, rather than breaking the law and refusing to set balanced budgets.

At the time, Newcastle City Council leader and leader of the Local Government Association’s Labour group, Nick Forbes, could barely contain his anger.

He had struggled to get a speaking spot on the main stage, and lamented evidence at conference that a significant section of the party was still obsessed by central control.

Fast forward to this week and Cllr Forbes took his place on the Labour national executive committee for a meeting that would rekindle anxieties over the Labour leadership’s attitude to local government.

A motion was tabled to halt Labour-led Haringey LBC’s controversial plan to set up a housing vehicle in equal partnership with private firm Landlease. This has sparked fury, locally and beyond, with claims borough leader Claire Kober is selling the family silver and that the scheme could effectively result in social cleansing. 

However, a discussion ensued at the NEC about the extent to which the borough’s policies should be subject to central party intervention. And there was eventually unanimous support to approve a watered-down motion for shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne to mediate between the NEC and Cllr Kober on the issue.

In response, Southwark LBC leader Peter John (Lab) tweeted: “I respect @UKLabour NEC but I also respect the right of locally elected politicians to take decisions about how to manage their local authority. Local democracy should not be undermined by national government or party.”

Haringey’s cabinet member for economic development, social inclusion and sustainability, Joe Goldberg (Lab), put it more bluntly: “I serve the people of my borough first not my party – regardless of what the politburo say.”

Cllr Forbes then later told LGC that “the [original] motion as described wasn’t passed”.

“Second hand reports of meetings are not always accurate”, tweeted Islington councillor and NEC member Alice Perry, “the NEC understands that it’s not its place to try to run councils by proxy”.

According to the Huffington Post, which first broke the story, the motion to “order” Haringey to halt its plan, was supplanted by an agreement on mediation with the council, led by Mr Gwynne, “to avoid triggering all-out war between… centrist councillors and the party leadership”.

It is likely the two representatives of local government on the committee played a role in pushing the case for caution over bluster.

The NEC’s decision comes at a time when internal party tensions are being played out in the Labour selection process for local elections in May.

Haringey is likely to see the biggest turnover of sitting members, with more than 20 councillors who supported the Haringey Delivery Vehicle reportedly set to be ousted.

The HDV has acted as a catalyst for action, with Momentum activists believed to be playing a significant role.

The future direction in Newham LBC, so long dominated by mayor Sir Robin Wales, also looks uncertain.

Sir Robin is facing an imminent re-run of the trigger ballot that will decide whether he is automatically selected as Labour’s candidate.

According to reports, the party decided to re-run the process after disgruntled members threatened legal action, amid claims of wrongdoing. The motivation of Sir Robin’s opponents remains unclear.

Despite the reverence in which Jeremy Corbyn is held by the large majority of members who attended conference, the impact and influence of his leadership, along with the rise of Momentum, is still to be fully felt in local government.

As in Haringey, many Labour councillors who are forced to make difficult decisions on tightening budgets with immediate implications for their communities cannot afford the luxury of ideological dogma.

While austerity continues, the distance and potential friction between many activists and Labour council leaders is likely to continue.

Labour’s manifesto declares that it is the “party of devolution and we believe in handing back power to communities”.

It remains to be seen whether the party leadership will honour this pledge by continuing to resist its centralist instincts and fully respect councils’ democratic mandate.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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