Two councils have been headline news in the past week.
Northamptonshire CC had a Section 114 notice issued to it, ensuring no new agreements for non-statutory expenditure could be made. And Claire Kober announced she was standing down as Haringey LBC leader after May’s local elections. Unusually for local government, the national media carried extensive coverage of both stories.
Northamptonshire is Conservative-controlled, ensuring that its problems are tied to the Tories nationally. Housing and communities secretary Sajid Javid had already announced he was to instigate an inquiry into the county’s finances, though this was not enough to stop Jeremy Corbyn attacking the government over the issue, saying “austerity is unleashing chaos across our country”. More surprisingly the county’s seven Conservative MPs attacked the council leadership and called for commissioners to be sent in.
The Haringey case is even more poisonous. Cllr Kober has given a series of interviews attacking Momentum for “bullying and intimidation” over, amongst other things, the Haringey Development Vehicle regeneration scheme. She added that her treatment by Momentum activists, “is absolutely sexist”. She also attacked the way Labour’s national executive committee had intervened about the HDV. Almost 70 Labour leaders from across the country wrote a letter to the Sunday Times to condemn the NEC’s intervention calling it “uncomradely [and] disrespectful”.
The Conservatives and Labour at Westminster are tangled in parallel civil wars which are spilling out into moderate and broadly efficient local government. Some pro-Brexit MPs are also, in an unparalleled way, attacking the independent civil service. These different conflicts take place against the backdrop of almost a decade of austerity. Northamptonshire, Haringey and the Treasury have all become caught up in an existential crisis which is spreading destructively across the British political establishment.
It is unlikely Northamptonshire is the only council close to the financial precipice. Reducing council budgets by 25-40% over eight years was inevitably going to have bad consequences. It is also inevitable Haringey will not be the only place where Momentum breaks through – and it may de-select MPs next. Politics surely cannot go on like this for much longer: something will have to give. British politics and government are in a parlous condition.
Tony Travers, director, LSE London