LGC’s essential daily briefing.
Reports of a potential fundamental shift in the way Labour council leaders are chosen, emerging from the party’s democracy review, have been doing the rounds for some time.
Now we have it in black and white, with the publication today of a leaked version of the supposedly confidential democracy review report published by the Huffington Post.
There is a significant majority of Labour councillors who oppose this move, which reflects Jeremy Corbyn’s determination to give grassroots members more power and influence over the party.
As well as the leadership question, the report includes a series of proposals to bolster members’ influence over how Labour councillors and councils operate.
The document acknowledges that many Labour councillors and leaders regularly report to, and hold talks with, members.
But in a bid to ensure this “best practice becomes a reality everywhere” and enables members to have a “meaningful way of engaging with local councillors on local issues and feed into local policy”, the report recommends a return to a ‘local government committee’ system.
These committees, the reports says, will be coterminous with local authority boundaries and have tight control over councillors. The proposed model will see committees overseeing “all issues” relating to local government - including policy development and candidate selection - and have a role in ensuring manifesto pledges are delivered.
The Local Government Association’s Labour Group, which has argued for a local government committee system to strengthen local accountability, recommended that delegates should be comprised of 40% councillors, 40% constituency party members and 20% trade unions.
However, in a clear signal of a direction of travel that will concern many councillors, the report recommends 75% of delegates to the committee are elected by the constituency party and 25% by branches. Councillors will be required to “report and be accountable to” the committee.
In perhaps further evidence of a rift between Labour in local government and the national party leadership, the report says the review has received “very different views” over how councils’ policies should be developed.
Despite some contibutors arguing that councillors are representives of the communities which elected them rather than party delegates, the report says that “in a members-led party, members and affiliates have every right to develop policy for their local council and community”.
To this end, with Labour councillors perhaps expected to be grateful for small mercies, the report adds “the local [election] manifesto should be agreed between the [local government committee] and the Labour group”.
On the approach to electing council leaders, which has garnered much attention, the report proposes three models for potential pilots: the creation of an electoral college with a third of votes each for councillors, trade union members and party members; election by Labour members and affiliated supporters with a one member, one vote ballot; or election by one member, one vote by party members alone.
Ominously for many Labour councillors, the current system of councillors electing the leader does not appear to be an option.
The legal implications of such a move are unclear, but concerns have been raised that there could be legal challenges to council constitutions which require councillors to annually elect the leader.
Both the leadership and committee proposals come with significant risk. Council and party processes could become cumbersome, complicated and fraught with factional friction.
It could also create further pressures and barriers to the decisive strategic action required, particularly in the current financial, social and political climate.
Also, the leadership proposals would result in the electorate not knowing who would lead the council if they voted Labour because the leadership election process would take place after the local election.
Most importantly, this move to give party members unprecedented control over councillors’ decision-making could break that vital democratic link and undermine the essential social contract not just between individual councillors and their constituents, but also between the council itself and the wider community it serves.
Jon Bunn, senior reporter