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Labour's central grip tightens as leaders feel the pinch

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LGC’s essential daily briefing

The collection of essays by Labour council leaders, published today to coincide with a meeting of the party’s national executive committee, comes at a time when the party is in the midst of its latest upheaval.

The resignation last month of general secretary Iain McNicol was a blow to Labour councillors, who valued him as a steadfast advocate during a time when some elements within the expanded membership viewed them with suspicion and, in some cases, outright hostility.

Leader of the Local Government Association Labour group Nick Forbes at the time paid tribute to “a true friend of Labour local government”, saying: “Iain has consistently championed the role of councillors within the party, ensuring that we have a voice in policy and development, planning campaigns and promoting the achievements of Labour in office.”

A number of high profile Labour staffers have followed Mr McNicol out of the party’s Victoria Street HQ, where the NEC was due to meet today.

Tellingly, outside the building stood members of Momentum’s Brighton & Hove branch, no doubt still revelling in the decision by the city council’s Labour leader Warren Morgan (Lab) to step down, reportedly chanting “McNicol’s gone, now it’s time for the rest of them”.

As the left has continued to strengthen its control over Labour, the On Day One report is a sign the frustrations expressed by Labour councillors during conference in September have not abated.

While largely conciliatory in tone, many of the report’s authors can barely contain their dismay that Labour in local government is still undervalued, misunderstood and often ignored by influential party figures.

It makes an impassioned and frequently powerful case for councillors with experience of protecting the vulnerable - and who continue to promote social justice as austerity cuts ever deeper - should be listened to, respected and unshackled from central control as a Labour government strives to reboot public services.

But the frustration, and perhaps a hint of resignation, that this may not happen anytime soon sometimes filters through.

Cllr Forbes reaffirms points he raised during a frustrating conference, where some delegates accused Labour councils of colluding with the Conservative government by setting balanced budgets.

He said Labour councils “deserve the trust of Labour in government” with a “wider voice” in the party, including better representation on the NEC, which currently only has two local government representatives (Cllr Forbes being one).

There is also a repeated concern that a centralist impulse within the left may stifle innovation and the speed of progress.

Bolton MBC leader Linda Thomas warns if Labour’s manifesto pledge to introduce a national care service establishes “a one size fits all approach, rather than bespoke local services, then it will fail – and be highly inefficient and wasteful too.”

Lambeth LBC leader Lib Peck says ring-fencing funding “may be politically seductive” but this would create an “over-emphasis” on one policy area and could “re-enforce the silo mentality that afflicts all big bureaucracies”.

Durham CC leader Simon Henig says the formal involvement of local government in decision-making processes is often “tokenistic, an afterthought” and called for a local government representative to be given a seat at the cabinet table.

It is significant that shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne has written the foreword to the report.

While stopping short of advocating all the opinions expressed, he is clear of the need for national leaders to relinquish a degree of control to empower local government.

He says: “The messages of ‘On Day One’ are clear: that the future of our country cannot be formulated by politicians in Westminster, but needs to be built in partnership with local leaders and local people, in towns, cities, and counties across the country.”

Mr Gwynne’s tenacious support will provide a degree of hope that Labour councils will be given the status within the party and the freedoms they deserve.

But as the left continues to tighten its control of the party machinery, central grip shows no sign of being loosened.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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