Commentary on Claire Kober’s announcement she will not seek re-election.
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“I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, mis-placed, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.”
The stunning oratory of Labour leader Neil Kinnock about Liverpool’s Militant council may have taken place nearly 33 years ago but it echoes around local government today.
This morning we found out that Claire Kober, the Haringey LBC leader who has been under political siege over the borough’s proposed £2bn regeneration joint venture with a private sector partner, has bowed to the inevitable by announcing she will stand down at May’s council elections. Haringey loses its leader, London Councils its chair.
Of course, the situation currently is a reversal of that of the Derek Hatton era. It is now the local politician who is the pragmatist and it is the national Labour party which has the “rigid dogma, a code”. While party leader Jeremy Corbyn has not denounced Cllr Kober in the way Mr Kinnock did Cllr Hatton (and indeed would not have the eloquence to do anything comparable), last week’s meeting of Labour’s ruling national executive committee cannot be viewed as anything other than an attempt to intimidate Haringey to change course. It seems inconceivable Cllr Kober’s plans, under which developer Lendlease would own a 50% stake in affected assets in the borough, will proceed.
Cllr Kober explained what happened in a blog today, stating that she was “deeply disappointed” that NEC members had made “no attempt” to contact her “before, during or immediately after” last week’s meeting.
“As well as being discourteous to me, it is rather perverse to have a lengthy discussion about something without trying to gain possession of the facts,” Cllr Kober wrote. “It is unbecoming of the national executive of a government in waiting to discuss a policy based simply on the account of those opposed to it.”
An initial motion to halt Haringey’s partnership with Lendlease was watered down into a motion for shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne to mediate between the NEC and Cllr Kober. Mediate surely effectively means ‘force to change course’.
Southwark LBC leader Peter John – probably the frontrunner to take over as London Councils chair – said on Twitter: “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.”
Cllr Kober clearly felt undermined and threw the towel in.
She had been under pressure for some time. Much of the abuse has been personal. As she told the Evening Standard today: “The sexism, bullying, undemocratic behaviour and outright personal attacks on me as the most senior woman in Labour local government have left me disappointed and disillusioned.”
Thus Momentum has claimed its biggest local government scalp so far. Given the influx of new, younger Corbynistas to Labour and how many existing Labour councillors in the borough have already announced that they will not be standing in May, it seems probable Haringey will become England’s most left-wing council.
All eyes will be on the north London borough (on which Labour holds 49 of the 57 seats and will surely triumph again in May) as it threatens to offer the first indication of whether the Corbynistas may be mellowed by pragmatism after winning office. While it is, of course, wrong to assume any new Haringey Labour group leader will be a clone of Mr Corbyn, Conservative and Liberal Democrat opponents (not to mention a fair few within Labour) will eagerly await any slip-ups as an indication of the chaos a Corbyn government would unleash. Thus Haringey could be seen, perhaps unfairly, as a micro-lab for Corbyn’s Britain. The pressure will be on to prove fitness to govern.
Labour’s local government leadership has been concerned for some time about how far those close to Mr Corbyn are from the reality of local government. Councils have little fiscal freedom but the welfare of social care recipients, those needing housing and the most vulnerable people depend on their competence. You work with the tools available – including the private sector – or you fail your community. You set a balanced budget or else your council is subjected to central intervention and a Conservative government will run these services.
Last year’s Labour conference offered a platform for Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett to vent his spleen about Birmingham City Council’s bin strike. “It is not good enough for Labour councillors to hide behind talk of Tory budgets,” he told delegates. “It is not good enough for them to talk of hard decisions – that has no place in a socialist party.”
Haringey’s new leadership will be an example of socialists facing hard decisions. However, it probably won’t regard the Haringey Development Vehicle as a tough one: the project is surely doomed.
In her blog, Cllr Kober said her borough had 3,000 families in temporary accommodation, 9,000 families on the housing waiting list and a growing number of children being referred to social services as a result of inadequate housing. “Ideological dogma will do nothing to improve their lives; only a determination to find practical solutions – in partnership with other sectors – offers them any realistic prospect of a better, more secure future.”
She continued: “For me the responsibility of political office is to work to improve people’s lives even when that means finding solutions that aren’t always an ideologically comfortable fit. Political issues are rarely binary; solutions are not simply good or bad. Political leadership is about setting a vision and working to deliver on it using whatever tools are available. That is how we deliver improved outcomes for the communities that seek to gain most from Labour in government, be that local or national.”
The proposed Lendlease deal is certainly risky. It is hard not to feel squeamish about the immense power and resources given over to a private company. However, assuming that there is no immediate change in government or central policy, it surely represented the only means by which Haringey could undertake a redevelopment on this scale. The vulnerable families Cllr Kober talked about will be denied new homes. Similarly, pressures on social care and children’s services generally boil down to ‘you must do more with less’, meaning you cannot always be as generous to your workforce as activists such as Mr Beckett would like.
If Haringey is to become this decade’s equivalent of 1980s Liverpool it could be led by a Derek Hatton unrestrained by Labour centrally. The impact of this would be uncomfortable for Haringey’s officers, for Labour councillors across the country who have built their careers on the necessity of pragmatism, and for local government more broadly.
Nick Golding, editor