When Labour hasn’t got any clear policy on Brexit (the most significant post-war UK political development, which happens on 29 March next year), it is unsurprising it has postponed a decision on its flagship local government reform.
Labour is now due to determine next year whether it will be party members who decide its council and group leaders rather than the traditional system of a vote of its councillors. Under the proposal, part of the party’s democracy review, councillors will also be subservient to local party local government committees which will oversee policy development and decide upon candidates. Councillors will be barred from these committees.
This proposal has the potential to destroy local democracy in Labour areas. A councillor is elected to serve their electorate (including those who did not vote for them). They should be beholden to no other force.
A councillor should use their judgement to determine what is best for their ward or division, to whose residents they are accountable. While they may be whipped, this should be at the behest of an identifiable group leader and for the purpose of building a cohesive political strategy for the entire local area. Councillors should not be accountable to some shadowy committee, visible only to its membership. Shielded from public scrutiny, unsupported by the council officers who can translate local political programmes into viable (and legal) action, these committees will doubtless have a tendency to become talking shops, issuing fantasy decrees. But setting illegal budgets and ducking tough spending dilemmas gets you nowhere. It certainly does not help the poorest and most vulnerable, who generally end up being the losers whenever a council is mismanaged.
This proposal is the product of a centralising mindset, reliant on a belief that the Labour membership will be loyal to the national leader, disregarding those who understand the local area best. Weirdly, it is the Corbynista parallel of the free schools movement, in which a small number of local enthusiasts notionally pull the strings but end up contributing to a centralised system devoid of real local democratic scrutiny. Ironically, on Monday Labour pledged to scrap free schools.
Should the local democracy review ever be implemented it would end up imposing dictators on Labour councillors, resulting in political chaos and ineffectiveness. If you stand up to the leader you’ll be “vilified as the enemy within” (as Labour’s Local Government Association group leader Nick Forbes put it this week) and inevitably de-selected.
A wiser course for Labour to take would be to reinvigorate local democracy by encouraging new members to stand for election. Many council chambers could benefit from a refresh and a bit of youthful radicalism. However, Labour members – and the party’s national leadership, for that matter – must remember it is only by translating radical principles into a viable programme that stuff actually happens. If you talk radicalism but shun or undermine the people and bodies that can bring about change, you might as well label yourself a reactionary.