The sight of a Labour run council in East London sacking all of its workers to force worse terms and conditions and wages on them has many wondering why Labour is acting this way. Simon Hannah looks at some of the contradictions of Labour in local government and the history of how the left tried to use it as a platform for resistance – leading mostly to failure.
12 July 2020
Class war in East London
The three day strike in Tower Hamlets was workers fighting back against the imposition of new contracts. The UNISON branch called out all of its members in a bid to prevent the management breaking the union and defending their terms and conditions. The picket lines were well attended and the online solidarity rally had over 450 people on it. The management were clearly in no mood to compromise, the police were called after management accused UNISON of secondary picketing the bin workers, organised by Unite and not covered by the dispute.
This strike has shown some of the best sides of trade unionism in Britain, solidarity from other workers, the union movement united in condemning the employer and solid picket lines from a workforce that knows the values of trade union solidarity and action. It has also shown the worst side of Labour in local government.
The use of the Tory anti union laws is just another example of how Labour goes to war with workers where it has power, while claiming to be standing up for working people against the Tories. It is no different to how the Attlee government (claimed to be the pinnacle of British socialist government) used the army over twenty times to break workers strikes. When managing a capitalist state you are still managing capitalism and the economic imperatives that come from a system built on oppression and exploitation.
In pursuing this ‘sack and re-engage’ tactic that is increasingly in favour in the private sector, Tower Hamlets Council has demonstrated complete contempt for its workforce and their unions. While it is important to point out that this is being done under a Labour Council it is also worth noting that this is only the most egregious recent example of Labour in local government acting like vicious bosses.
Since 2010 the austerity agenda driven by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats tore through local government, cutting funding by 50%, slashing services and leading to massive job cuts. This itself was also just the continuation of the Thatcher era policies – since 1979 the Conservatives view of local government is that it is wasteful and profligate. Some of them intend for local government to be reduced to the bare minimum, providing only social care for the elderly, so that everything else can be run privately.
This so-called service delivery model was also popular with the Blairites, who believed that council services could be better run through public-private partnerships and outsourcing. The actions of the councillors in Tower Hamlets, led by the Labour Mayor John Biggs, are symptomatic of this attitude in local government – acting as managers of cuts, they see their job as implementing laws and policies from central government.
Local government as a platform for resistance
Despite rhetoric from time to time, Labour in local government has traditionally been a picture of acquiescence and historic compromise. That is why you can count the number of battles waged by Labour Councils against Tory government in Westminster on one hand – Poplar in 1921, Clay Cross in 1972, Liverpool in 1982 and Rate Capping in 1985. These are the only significant battles against central government that took on a political character, i.e. that defied power and struggled over fundamental questions.
Poplar was a resounding success and established important principles of financial redistribution across boroughs, something that set the paradigm for nearly one hundred years. Clay Cross was a defeat, but a heroic one. Liverpool was the only time since WW2 there has been an ‘illegal budget’ and it wrung a financial concession out of the Tory government and so was a success. But these were individual councils taking a stand over finances or rents. The Rate Capping campaign of 1985 was the only serious attempt to create a wider fight back across local government, taking in 16 councils and metropolitan authorities. However, it ended in total defeat, with Lambeth and Liverpool Councillors being surcharged and kicked out of office, consolidating the power of Kinnock in the party as Labour ‘learned lessons’ from the dispute like; ‘don’t fight back, don’t take a stand, don’t rock the boat and definitely don’t look looney left’.
However, the defeat was largely caused by soft left councillors peeling away as well as the united front of socialist left councillors collapsing within weeks of the rate capping struggle starting. (For more on this see my forthcoming book Radical Lambeth, Breviary Stuff 2020). Even more spectacularly, Ken Livingstone – the darling of the municipal left –abandoned the field of battle on the first day, taking the Greater London Council, the jewel in the crown of the Labour left at the time, out of the fight.
Looking back on the struggles of the 1980s it is clear that the Labour left struggled and ultimately failed to utilise their position of running several councils across Britain to build a mass movement to fight Thatcher. As the powers and finances of local government were slashed throughout that decade (and the unions were defeated) the left could do little with what they had. Calling for more resistance, socialists criticised Kinnock’s ‘dented shield’ policy of Labour Councils implementing cuts, but in more socially responsible ways than a Tory council. But even the supposed hard left in local government implemented cuts, and in the end the ‘dented shield’ strategy was the fall back position and everyone fell back to it.
Being in local government in a period of prosperity doesn’t raise these same questions. Being a Labour councillor between 1997-2010 didn’t involve budget cuts, but it did involved continued privatisation of local services and battles over gentrification. Market forces which Blairite councillors were only too happy to foster and encourage drove these processes. But when local government is under concerted attack, as it was between 1979-1992 and from 2010, the Labour left has yet to develop a meaningful strategy for resistance. Let’s examine some of the obstacles.
In and against the state
Some on the left are currently calling for an ‘in and against the state’ strategy. This idea was developed in the late 1970s by a discussion group of socialist economists. It was intended to be a possible alternative to the strategy of the ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’, which was quite dominant on the Labour left at the time. The AES was a programme for government, and after 1979 when the Tories were in power it was effectively dead, though some elements of it survived in local authorities run by the left.
The idea of ‘in and against’ was to win positions within the state, for instance in local government, and use those positions to prise open functions of the state to the wider community and more participatory democracy (though that phrase had not been coined then). It was intended to be a radical political approach, which challenged notions of state power while using the state where possible for meaningful reforms. In reality, however, this strategy never achieved lift off in any meaningful way as the various left strategies in the 1980s collapsed under the onslaught of Thatcherism, leaving socialists fighting only defensive struggles for the rest of the decade as the unions and working class communities were torn apart.
The only place where it had any slight purchase was in the Greater London Council, run by Ken Livingstone. Livingstone at the time was open to left experimentation to try and open the GLC up to different communities. Most notably the work done around the women’s committee saw representatives from campaigns and radical networks brought into City Hall to create a co-creator model where it wasn’t just elected politicians calling the shots. Importantly, this wasn’t just a tokenistic forum without powers; the Women’s Committee had an annual budget of £16m and 100 staff members. The activities of the committee, most notably its funding of feminist, lesbian and disabled groups and organisations, inevitably attracted derision from the right wing press.
The potential for a radical shift in the role of local government is predicated on the view that councils occupy a unique place within the structures of the capitalist state, in that they focus largely on the question of social reproduction and improving the conditions in which humans can live and families can survive. Local government manages a range of public services from taking away household rubbish to looking after vulnerable people to maintaining parks and leisure centres (for recreation and public health). It still provides a huge amount of housing to maintain family units in a sustainable way and provides social workers for when those family units break down. This social function is also why local government was traditionally a place where women could vote or even on occasion hold some kind of elected position even in the 19th century; it was partly coterminous with ‘women’s work’, i.e. looking after people and supporting families.
Within this space it is possible to imagine a refashioning of local government along the lines of a more radical model, providing a bridge between local democracy and social questions. But just because something can be imagined does not mean it is easy to implement. There are problems, one related to the structure of the Labour Party and one related to the structure of local councils.
Labour and local government
On the Labour Party first, even at the height of Corbynism the ascendant left in Labour had almost no programme or strategy for local government whatsoever. The key political coordinates for the Labour left between 2015-19 was the acknowledgement by Corbyn, McDonnell and Jon Trickett in December 2015 that they would leave Labour Councillors, dominated by the Labour right since the 1990s, alone. The second coordinate was the boosting of the ‘Preston model’ as a ‘radical’ alternative to the mainstream Labour run council, even though the Preston model was itself predicated on using the reactionary reforms of the last few decades to offset budgetary constraints. The Preston model (Inspired by similar actions in Cleveland USA) essentially saw a council using its leverage to procure contracts for outsourced services to boost the local economy instead of relying on national companies like Mears or GLL to run services or manage repairs. This would help boost what they termed ‘Community wealth building’. The intended outcome is to boost local SMEs over their larger competitors. This approach was supported by the New Economic Foundation, which described it as a form of ‘municipal socialism’.
The best that can be said of the Preston model is that it is an attempt to steer the neoliberal reforms imposed on local government since 1980 in a social democratic direction, but ultimately the council still operates within strict parameters set by a reactionary government in Westminster. The idea of boosting local business to create a virtuous capitalist economy that can then be taxed through the business rates is straight out of the Labour left’s overall strategic vision of using the state to boost capitalism in – as they see it – a socially responsible way. It also avoids the thorny question of a political confrontation with the government over spending cuts by pursuing a local is beautiful line. It is furthermore worth noting that the Preston model is being boosted at a time when other councils are beginning to take services in house, reversing the dogma of the last 40 years that outsourcing is always superior and cheaper to in-house service delivery.
The third coordinate is Haringey Council in North London, the only council in the country where Corbynism appeared to make any inroads in the selection process and win a majority, allowing them to utilise the power of a council to implement radical policies. However, the high point of Corbynism in local government was also the lowest point, as the ‘left’ councillors largely turned out to be single issue campaigners concerned with a Council policy over housing development; beyond that one issue they were not particularly radical. Then the Council insisted on redevelopment of a local community landmark, the Latin village, and – facing opposition from their own local activists – adopted the same haughty and arrogant refusal to back down as any other council in the country would have done. Haringey was a disaster for the Corbyn project because it revealed that the movement had no serious proposals for local government and would in fact act in exactly the same way when faced with the same structural inputs and economic obstacles.
Any hope of utilising local government to do anything slightly radical has to face the problem that the Labour left have close to zero input or impact in council chambers due to the powerful control the old Labour right has over these structures. Under the Local Campaign Forum model anyone associated with Corbynism was weeded out pretty rapidly or dumped in unwinnable seats where they could do no harm.
For those that did get through, the Labour right successfully introduced new rules in 2016 to make it an expellable offence to vote for unbalanced budgets (budgets with no cuts), making constitutional what the Labour right did in practice between 2010-15, which was to expel anyone who dared to actually challenge the orthodoxy of austerity and vote for resistance to it.
Why are the Labour right so strong in local government? Two key political changes since 1989 have influenced the psychology of Labour councillors. The government imposed cuts in the 1980s saw Labour councils clash with their workforces and unions for the first time in decades, which was followed by the implementation of the Poll Tax, another policy that Labour forced its councillors to follow through on pain of disciplinary action. This created a new breed of Labour Councillor, someone who was willing to ‘stand up to the unions’, someone who was ‘serious’ about politics and vehemently opposed to the ‘loony left’. These councillors prided themselves on being ‘tough’ and willing to make the ‘difficult decisions’, which in practice meant cuts to essential services if that is what was required. The new breed of Labour councillor had to be willing to put people in prison for refusing to pay their poll tax. Of course Councils imprison people all the time for non-payment of rates or Council Tax today (something that disproportionately falls on single mothers), but that is understood to just come with the terrain. Whereas imprisonment during the poll tax was a repressive act during a mass movement, so that it therefore became a political action against working class communities. Again, the ‘difficult decisions’.
The second key political change, related to the first, is a shift in social composition. Until the 1980s local government was seen by Labour as a retirement home for old MPs, trade union organisers and various assorted reliable old (mostly) men who wouldn’t rock the boat and had very little to do. There were few expenses and no one was full time. But Labour activists began to see local government differently in the 1980s; it became a place not where you might end the twilight years of your career, but where you might start your career. Councils began to fill up with bright young Kinnockites, hungry to prove themselves to the new leadership. Willing to be ‘tough’ and make the ‘difficult decisions’. You prove yourself in local government and then go on the career path to be an MP somewhere. It became an alternative route to power for people who had no base in the trade union movement and could not rely on horse-trading by General Secretaries to get them a safe seat somewhere as a loyal union bureaucrat.
Importantly, because this new breed was born in opposition to the loony left, they have a visceral hatred of anything that hints at 1980s opposition politics – the regular histrionics about the evils of ‘illegal budgets’ indicate that these councillors are still fighting the battles of 1984, almost as if they have shell shock. This is an institutional memory, handed down from generation to generation by the previous right wing councillors that recruited and trained them.
This shift in composition makes Labour in local government far more of a bulwark of careerist right-wingers and their hangers on, creating an almost impenetrable layer of conservatism in the Labour Party. that is not to say that every Labour councillor is like this and there are a smattering across Britain who do not fit into this mould, but it is a key feature of why the more radical left are blocked from positions.
For all these reasons during the Corbyn era, Labour made no serious gains in local elections at all during this period, only receiving a net gain of councils in the 2018 local elections. Labour lost control of Dudley in 2016, Cumbria in 2017. It lost seats in Scotland, further consolidating the SNP’s hegemony on politics there.
If there is a desire to transform local government into a more progressive vehicle, it is important to analyse how local government is structured. Since the 1970s the move towards restructuring councils along corporate management models began with a vengeance. New layers of strategic management were introduced and directorates restructured to ensure greater corporate compliance. When the left developed their municipal socialist strategy towards the end of the 1970s, the result was some headline policies and redirection of spending, but the councils remained untouched. Well paid executive officers formed a bureaucratic caste that essentially dictated the parameters councillors could operate within.
Some of the debate during the Corbyn era was whether a directorate structure was somehow better than a cabinet model. The reality is that both had problems; the cabinet model centralised power in the hands of the leader, but the directorate model often resulted in silo thinking and competition over resources between directors and their attached councillors.
When the Labour left had influence in local government there was no serious attempt, outside of the limited examples of the GLC, to alter the constitutional arrangements of councils. A municipal socialist strategy would have not only been about redirection of finances according to spending priorities, but would have shifted the balance of power within the structures. A really dynamic ‘in and against the state’ strategy has to incorporate some attempt to dismantle the state. To be against a state structure while being in it necessitates some kind of plan to undermine the institutions and roll back the power of the capitalist state while transferring power into alternative democratic forums. Otherwise ‘against’ merely replicates the strategy of the neoliberal right of aiming to dismantle local government, which they intend to replace with the market. What would a municipal socialist strategy replace the local capitalist state with?
Debates in Momentum
In response to the events in Tower Hamlets, the new Momentum leadership passed a motion condemning the council and calling for solidarity with the workers there. This represented a serious break with the previous Momentum leadership under Jon Lansman who explicitly refused to criticise Labour councils. This refusal came from a desire not to pick battles with councillors and because the Labour left knew that to really side with communities and trade unions battling Labour councils imposing austerity meant a conflict that could rapidly escalate beyond their control. The contradictions at a local level of a social democratic party implementing austerity and other anti working class measures were simply too dangerous to unravel, so Momentum abandoned the struggle. Activists in disputes against Labour Councils called for solidarity and political support from Momentum, but were ignored or explicitly rebuffed.
So from the perspective of a radical challenge to the thorny knot of contradictions at the heart of a social democratic local authority, the Momentum statement is to be welcomed. But immediately it led to a backlash from councillors accusing Momentum of being divisive. This criticism is a demand from those with power that activists shut up and not criticise them. They want the right to enjoy their privileges and power at a local level without opposition.
Labour may be a broad church (forced on it by the first past the post electoral system), but demands from local councillors for the Labour left to be silent in their criticism is a clear example of how the broad church is used as an excuse to smother legitimate criticism. It is the unity of the graveyard.
In my book on the history of the Labour left I develop an analysis first put forward by Leo Pantich in the 1970s concerning the twin dynamics in Labour being between a transformative wing (the left) and an integrationist wing (the right) that battle it out for control of the party. Integration in this situation means being co-opted into the existing power structures of capitalism, not just the social relations of capitalism but also the state itself. Labour is historically a party founded on and driven by integrationism, the desire to get more elected representatives in the capitalist state to pursue reforms. This strategy comes at a cost, the blunting of political contradictions and the demand for compromise and conciliation under the pressure of hostile class forces. Labour is a party for integrating people into the state structures with the hope of reforming those structures, but the political processes and pressures which are brought to bear on individuals in attempting to do this often overwhelm individual principles and assert a degree of conformity and moderation in order to participate in the structures in the first place.
Of course this happens in Parliament, the infamous stereotype of the once radical trade union activist becoming a ‘sell out’ MP is a common one (House of Commons one?) in the history of the labour movement. But it happens even more in local government, largely because councillors can have a more executive role in handling and managing the capitalist state than most MPs. This ‘natural’ political trajectory comes with the territory of electoralism; you need to get the greatest number of votes from the greatest number of people. This requires a softening of politics and compromise, which can blunt any radical message. It is also engaging with politics at the most passive point, asking people to go to a ballot box and vote for you. This is also why radical political programmes fail time and again at the ballot box; they simple seem ‘unrealistic’ to people who are going about their day to day lives living in a nexus of social and ideological relations defined by capitalist hegemony.
Local government is no exception to this process. In most councils, Labour Councillors have very little freedom of speech; the whips religiously peruse their twitter accounts, checking for signs of heresy. Suspensions or even expulsions are handed out with impunity on renegades that dare to question the logic of cuts or privatisation of local services. Labour councillors have far less political rights or freedom of operation than an MP.
There are calls on the left currently for a strategy for local government, based on the fact that Labour will be out of power in Westminster for years to come.
Given what we can see of the state of local government and the changes that have occurred since the 1980s for any possible strategy to be meaningful, it would have to mean hundreds of socialists to be elected to council positions across the country and to take over the leadership of councils. This was achieved in 1978-84 in Britain but only in a handful of councils that didn’t have enough strength to hold together the campaign against rate capping. It is worth nothing that Lambeth and Liverpool stuck it out longer than the rest because they had the backing of the local council unions.
First you need a clear political statement of no cuts, no outsourcing, with councillors standing as tribunes of the people, using their platform to build mass community resistance and so on. This is where Momentum has utterly failed. As it focused on building a ‘councillors network’ without any clear political basis, it ends up engaging in an insipid training exercise. You would have to recruit and train people to be councillors for them to be able to stand up to political influence by the senior officers and to be willing to take firm positions in the face of huge pressures to buckle.
So armed with this statement the left would have to take over the Local Campaign Forums, which means a majority of delegates from CLPs and trade union affiliates to override the 33% of votes from the existing councillors, assuming they are not happy with left wing people standing for council positions. The short list councillors would have to stand against existing ‘moderates’ and beat them in local ward selections, which means getting people out to vote in the wards (let’s be clear, this was very hard even at the height of Corbynism).
Any councils run by socialists would be in a position to use their position to help foster and support movements of resistance to the Conservative government, or around crucial issues such as climate change. On financial issues, the only way to force more money from central government is for several councils to coordinate an unbalanced budget all at the same time. This would force the government to decide whether to use the law to remove the council and replace it with financial officers who would decide the budget. Of course this would cause a constitutional crisis and create a scope for radical actions, occupations of council chambers, community mobilisation and so on. This could theoretically cause a government back down, or a spectacular historic defeat. But at least it would show Labour was willing to fight.
Of course, expect a lot of newspaper talk of ‘looney left’ and the Labour right moving to expel a whole tranche of people from the party while howling that all of this is losing Labour votes. They have the script ready to go from the 1980s.
But of course whether the left wants to go down this route given how much energy it will take to get that done, in a period in which the Labour left is losing energy and activists after the end of Corbynism, is also a matter of serious debate.
It is also important to realise that the last outpouring of municipal socialist activists in the 1980s happened in the context of the miners’ strike and a far more militant trade union movement. To see a revival of radical action in local government will likely require a surge of activism and resistance in workplaces and communities. Getting socialists into work places and coordinating them into rank and file networks is going to be crucial for the success of any socialist strategies going forward. In the current context of runaway climate change and explosions of activism around anti-racism or opposing the far right, socialists will need to ask whether there is time or energy, and if the results are worth the trouble, to ‘take over local government’.
Simon Hannah is the author of a new book on the Poll Tax Revolt, Can't Pay, Won't Pay.
 Socialists know that people’s ideas change in the course of struggle, it is the antagonisms that erupt during a fight against bosses, or the state or various reactionary forces that can lead to more radical political conclusions in the minds of people thrust into a confrontation. Of course there is nothing automatic about this, and often people might draw radical conclusions too late on in the struggle, a subsequent defeat and all the radical ideas can be lost in the malaise of demoralisation.