Labour councillors face a “fight” to make party members understand the challenges they face after a critical “narrative” emerged during this year’s conference, the leader of the Local Government Association’s Labour group has warned.
Two delegates on Tuesday morning accused Birmingham and Leicester city councils of making unfair reductions to services and staff pay during speeches in the main conference hall.
Referring to the dispute over refuse workers’ pay and conditions in Birmingham, Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said the council was carrying out austerity “in the name of Labour” and accused interim chief executive Stella Manzie of forcing workers to pay for the “mismanagement” of the council.
He added: “It is not good enough for Labour councillors to hide behind talk of Tory budgets. It is not good enough for them to hide behind the likes of Stella Manzie. It is not good enough for them to talk of hard decisions – that has no place in a socialist party.”
During a later fringe session organised by the LGA Labour group, an angry Nick Forbes defended the record of Labour councils. He insisted they had worked hard to protect the vulnerable with diminishing resources.
Lib Peck: “Sometimes it is far too easy for us as Labour councils to be portrayed as second rate politicians to those in Westminster.”
Cllr Forbes added: “I am sorry to say this: we have to keep fighting this fight within our own party to understand the challenges we face.
“I am really upset that I have just heard in the hall a speaker from a trade union attack a Labour council for things it is having to do because of Tory budget cuts – that does the Tory’s dirty work for them.
“We need our party to be backing Labour councils. There is a new narrative developing that somehow Labour councils are not accountable. We are accountable when we look our constituents in the eye… don’t anybody say to me Labour councillors are not accountable.”
His comments were met with loud cheers from councillors in attendance.
Cllr Forbes, who is leader of Newcastle City Council and one of two local government representatives on Labour’s national executive committee, later told LGC that he was worried about the perception of councils at all levels of the party.
He added there was a desire for central “control” among many members and cited the proposal to establish a national care service, insisting councils should be given the freedom and investment to serve the particular needs of their communities.
During the fringe session Lambeth LBC leader Lib Peck (pictured) said that “too often” the challenges facing Labour councils had been “relegated to the fringes of the debate”.
She added: “It is far too easy for council workers to be portrayed as faceless bureaucrats… and sometimes it is far too easy for us as Labour councils to be portrayed as second rate politicians to those in Westminster.
“We need to challenge those stereotypes and make the case for good investment.”
Lib Peck Lambeth
Cllr Peck added that while it was “fantastic” that Labour had pledged to give councils £1.5bn of extra funding in its first year in government, local government was facing a £6bn shortfall.
“That should be up there as one of the key issues a new labour government needs to address,” she added.
Responding to Cllr Forbes comments during the session, shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne, a former Tameside MBC councillor, said he condemned criticism of councils.
“I know the difference a Labour government working in conjunction with Labour can make,” he added.
On Sunday Clr Forbes told the Association of Labour councillors annual reception that local government must have a greater influence over policy making.
Mr Gwynne had earlier announced a set of measures that he said would create a “renaissance in local government”, including legislation to enable councils to take services back in house.
During at an appearance at the ALC reception on Sunday evening, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn pledged to lift restrictions on council borrowing for housing and an end to “piecemeal” devolution.