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Centralism vs localism - another battle Labour can ill-afford

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A preview to the Labour party conference which begins this weekend.

About this time last year, Brighton was overrun with youthful exuberance as members (admittedly, not all) rallied behind their leader.

Fast-forward a year to the same location and the mood could not have been much more different as a different party barely managed (once again) to break through the national, and international, noise. Despite an “erotic spresm [sic]”, it was far from a happy ending for the Lib Dems’ departing leader Vince Cable.

Labour, however, will be hoping to this weekend in Liverpool resurrect the feelgood factor from last year’s conference.

Last year shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne claimed councils would be £1.5bn better off in the first year of a Labour government and pledged to introduce “some of the largest sets of reforms to local government in modern times”.

“The next Labour government will introduce a bill to rebuild our local services,” he said. “In it we will give councils greater powers to deliver services themselves because our services should be run for local communities alone.”

Following on from that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn then told the Association of Labour Councillors annual reception that he would end the government’s “piecemeal” approach to devolution.

“Piecemeal devolution to certain parts of the country is not devolution of the sort that we would have ever envisaged as a party,” said Mr Corbyn.

Then he went and did what Mr Corbyn does best, and contradicted what he had said by vowing to establish a ‘national care service’. So much for devolution!

Labour’s most senior politician in local government, Nick Forbes, spent most of conference fuming at the fact he had not been able to make a main stage speech and warned councillors still had to prove to the party’s leadership that they are a “force for good”.

The argument was clearly not won as centralist meddling in local affairs followed in Haringey LBC before proposals, backed by Momentum, emerged that would require local party members to endorse a Labour council group’s choice of leader.

Southwark LBC leader Peter John (Lab) said at the time the proposal could result in tighter controls on Labour councils.

“The relationship between the leader and the group would be almost broken,” he said. “Arguably you are moving to more of a mayoral model but it comes back to who has responsibility here. Is it the machinery of the party or is it the machinery of the local administration? It has to be the machinery of the administration if you want to get anything done.”

Cllr Forbes, who sits on Labour’s national executive committee, feared “interference based on supposition and poorly informed opinion.”

That led to local Labour leaders publishing a series of essays in March in which they argued against a government under Mr Corbyn exercising central control on local decision-making and in favour of councils having freedoms to implement policies that meet the needs of their communities.

“The state under Labour must not be an all-powerful, distant and centralised government but a local, accountable, and inclusive state where power is shared with communities,” wrote Cllr Forbes.

Yet around that time Labour local government lost an ally on the party’s national executive committee as general secretary Iain McNicol resigned. The centralist grip on the party was taking a firmer hold.

Since then the controversial proposals outlined in Labour’s democracy review have been killed off, resurrected, and then kicked into the long grass again.

On Twitter Cllr Forbes called the latter development “a sensible and pragmatic decision that will be welcomed by many in Labour Local Govt.”

A decision might be delayed but the issue will surely dominate discussions among councillors at this year’s conference as both they, and the wider sector, try to get a better understanding about exactly where local government sits in the party’s pecking order.

Following the anti-Semitism row and battles between activists and MPs that engulfed Labour this summer, arguments between centralists and localists are something the party can ill-afford. After all, with Theresa May’s Chequers plan getting panned by EU leaders today another general election might not be too far off. Just don’t tell Brenda from Bristol.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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