The local elections have provoked media speculation about the possibility that changes within the Labour party might mean there will be one or more ‘Momentum councils’ after the May elections.
A number of urban authorities have seen reselections and, in at least one case, an explicit move to oust the current leadership.
It is never quite clear what a Momentum-led council would actually be. Presumably it would have a majority within the Labour group for a leadership which promoted policies close to the more radical of those espoused by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. Once in office it would need to re-order priorities and policy. Any such authority would be seen as emblematic of Corbyn-led Labour in power nationally.
However, the legislative fallout from the 1980s hangs heavily over local government. Council tax is capped. Senior officers now have powers to require a balanced budget and to stop in-year revenue deficits. Capital spending is constrained by the prudential code. Creative accounting is virtually impossible. Housing investment is also limited. Monitoring Officers have a further, wider, supervisory role.
So a Momentum Labour-led council would be heavily constrained in what and how it could spend. It would inherit all the difficulties faced by its predecessor administration, notably that central government was cutting the authority’s spending on everything except adult care.
Of course, it would be possible hold a referendum to offer voters a substantial council tax rise. But there is a hazard here, too. Council tax is notoriously regressive: would a radical new council really want to add 15 or 20% to the local tax bills of lower-income households?
There can be no return to the 1980s, where a number of urban Labour-controlled councils attempted tactics such as a refusal to set rates and also where, in some cases, administration effectively broke-down. The threat to any council which failed to deliver a fully-effective children’s service would be immediate, both from regulators and the media.
Virtually all Labour leaderships in local government will remain moderate. For any more radical ones, the bleak reality of contemporary local government finance begs the question of whether there is a Momentum way of closing libraries and children’s centres?
Tony Travers, director, LSE London