“Labour councils should show leadership in fighting austerity” – interview with Paul Bell

Paul Bell, the left candidate in Lewisham Labour’s selection for its mayoral candidate, spoke to The Clarion.

Lewisham members will vote between 1 and 19 September. Paul is backed by the GMB, the FBU and the Bakers’ Union as well as Lewisham Momentum. For more on his campaign, see here and here.

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What made you decide to stand for mayor? Why should party members in Lewisham vote for you?

I’ve been a councillor since 2010, and ever since it’s been a process of cutting services, undermining our workforce, and a lot of the time doing the government’s bidding. We can do much more to stand up to the government. We can make a start by stopping and reversing outsourcing and privatisation. We can manage the limited money we’re getting much better, but we also need to go beyond that to help create movement that will demand more.

In terms of how we do that, the reality is that the system of having a directly, elected executive mayor makes collective decision-making we need to fight austerity very difficult, as power is not shared between all councillors, which is why I want to abolish it.

Explain more?

In this set up councillors are divided into three groups. Those in the cabinet, who are appointed by the Mayor. Then those who want to be in the cabinet so probably won’t make too much of a fuss. Then the rest of us who would like to see things done differently but are denied any power because of the system. Apart from the cabinet all councillors have been reduced to elected case workers who sit in meetings but have little decision-making power. No Labour person goes into politics to cut services, and the current Mayor is a decent man, but the mayoral system stifles democracy in the party and in the borough, and discourages people from even thinking about how to stand up against austerity.

The theory is that the mayor is a strong leader with a direct connection to the public but in reality, it’s power insulated from the public, as we saw with the Millwall debacle. It’s a concept introduced by Tony Blair and you can see why. We need to be asking Tony Benn’s famous questions about who has the power, how they got it, how they’re accountable and how we can get rid of them.

That’s why I’m pushing to end the mayoral system – the only candidate doing so. The law is that we’ll have to put it to voters in a referendum, but to even get there we’ll have to win a majority in the Labour group. I’m committed to winning that argument. If I win I’ll run again in four years but we will also have a vote to abolish the mayor so that hopefully I won’t take office a second time.

Most councils, even those without elected mayors, now have cabinets and that is not as democratic as I want. We need to move back to a committee system, with all councillors getting real power and that empowering their local parties too. Even while I’m mayor I’ll start to move things back in that direction. The Labour Party is a movement, not about a few people or one person at the top.

What are your key policies?

Many of my key proposals cross policy areas, for instance stopping outsourcing services and beginning a process of insourcing, which in turn will create ways to generate income and augment the council’s budget. Outsourcing services to the private sector or sometimes also the voluntary sector means people getting a worse service, getting cared for worse, but also worse jobs, and a cycle of misery in our community.

I am focusing on four key areas: housing, education, health and social care and jobs.

On housing: We will home all the homeless families in the borough – shamefully there are now hundreds. We will build 800 council houses and 800 Living Rent properties owned by the council but provided at a percentage of market rent depending on income, with a focus on key workers, low-paid public sector workers and so on. You know we have only two firefighters living in the borough and they can afford that because they bought their homes years ago! We’ve not built enough council homes. I think that’s partly because of technical difficulties but mainly down to lack of political will. Then, to benefit the 34 percent and growing of Lewisham residents who rent privately, we’ll have a landlord licensing scheme with the aim of driving bad landlords out of Lewisham or out of business – we’ll be ruthless about that – while encouraging good landlords who will be reasonable about rents and longer tenancies. We’ll also encourage the use of direct labour through Lewisham Homes to do repairs which will make life easier for both landlords and tenants while bringing the council income. I would add that I’d like to see an end to private rented sector, but it exists so this is how we’ll deal with it! And we’ll transform planning and development so it’s done with the community and not to it, meaning no more use of CPOs [Compulsory Purchase Orders] as in the Millwall case and the encouragement of affordable housing not a property developers’ bonanza.

On education, I’ll oppose new academies and free schools, full stop, and push to bring schools back into our family of community schools. And I will be an interventionist: I want school budgets monitored four times a year, not just once, so we can’t have things like what happened at Forest Hill School. That’s intervention to support and help schools, not impose on them. Teachers’ workloads are increasing. We’ll stop that and bring in a Workload Charter for teachers, which a few but not many other Labour councils have done, to make teaching more sustainable. We’ll review the PFI [Private Finance Initiative] deals, which are a huge issue in our schools, to squeeze every last drop of money back to the council and public services.

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On health and social care, I fully support the NHS Reinstatement Bill, which seeks to return to the NHS’s founding principles in the modern setting. We’ll contribute to fighting the drive for cuts, privatisation and fragmentation, which NHS England is now essentially overseeing. I’ll oppose any attempts to introduce so-called Accountable Care Organisations, which are a move towards US-style insurance bodies. The council can educate and mobilise people about all this, as well as holding the CCG [local Clinical Commissioning Group] to account. We’ll adopt Unison’s Ethical Care Charter, which again not many councils have done, and we’ll start reversing the outsourcing of care provision, which will soon save money and improve services, as well fighting for a public care system more generally.

Last but not least, on jobs, we need to ensure we don’t become even more of a dormitory borough than we are now. Our young people need hope for the future, which means more jobs. We need to create spaces for small and medium sized enterprises to set up in Lewisham. We need people who go to Goldsmiths to be able to stay here in places that are affordable. We need technology companies and manufacturers here to make Lewisham into a creative hub. For all that we need infrastructure, which the private sector isn’t providing and the public sector should.

If you look at the manifestos of the other candidates, three of the four others sound left-wing. What’s the difference?

Go beyond rhetoric or warm words, look at policy and how it will translate into action. It’s good that people are talking more left, which is because we have Jeremy Corbyn as leader – I voted for him twice – and because of the new mood and all the new members, but you’ve got to ask how substantial it is. If someone uses the words council housing, for instance, what are the numbers and how are they going to make it happen? Or if you look at the Trades Council questionnaire to the candidates, I’ve said clearly the chair of the council trade unions will sit on cabinet, and that I’ll reinstate direct, formal negotiations with the unions. Saying you’ll have informal discussions with unions is no substitute!

Let me be blunt: if you equivocate on privatisation, or just say you want to review it, that’s not left-wing. If you supported electing a leader who wasn’t Corbyn, that’s not left-wing. If you don’t want to fight austerity, that’s not left-wing.

There have recently been a number of Labour councils coming into conflict with their workers, including Lewisham – in the case of Forest Hill School. Could you comment on that and how you’d do things differently?

We need to avoid disputes with our workforce, by avoiding issues where workers feel they need to take action and by having processes in place to sort them out before they become a major problem. If we stop the fragmentation and outsourcing of our services and start to reverse it that will make it a lot easier to do.

The issue at FHS could have been avoided by different procedures in advance, for instance monitoring school budgets much more regularly, but when it did come up the mayor and councillors should have sat down in a serious discussion with the teachers and their unions as well as the school management, and tried to work out a plan acceptable to all. I mean serious discussions, not the formalities of being able to say you’ve met. That doesn’t sound very radical but the reality is that we’ve got to a point where there is a lack of intervention under the mantra of ‘local management of schools’. We eventually got an extension of the loan, but that was far too little far too late.

In the council things are left to full-time officers who are dedicated people but generally have a cautious and conservative mind set. You then get a situation where Labour council leaders are terrified to take responsibility and show leadership because they think it will all come down on them personally and they get into a bunker mentality where bizarrely you avoid embarrassment by just allowing everything to be bulldozed through. There is no political strategy, so of course it can’t be reviewed and corrected! If we had a collective, democratic set up with Labour politicians willing to take political responsibility things would be very different. That’s true on lots of issues, not just schools. Again, that brings us back to abolishing the mayor.

Can you say more about how the council should fight the government’s cuts?

First of all, and again this doesn’t sound radical but currently it isn’t happening, we need to say that we’re actually against the cuts and against austerity and we want them reversed. We need to say it publicly and loudly and repeatedly as part of a campaign.

There is already a movement in Lewisham that has fought over various cuts and has the capacity to fight, the Labour Party and unions and community campaigns. As a Labour councils we need to give political leadership in the fight against austerity, as should our MPs, as should London Labour and the whole party. We have an opportunity we haven’t had since 2010 or maybe 2011 to destabilise the government but also the elite it represents. The labour movement needs to be doing political education and mobilisation, including protests and direct action, but the council can magnify that voice.

Under my leadership, Labour councillors in Lewisham, or indeed from lots of boroughs, could go and organise sit down protests at the DLCG [Department of Communities and Local Government] or the LGA [Local Government Association]. It would have a big impact and encourage people to feel more confident about organising.

If we do things like stopping privatisation and outsourcing, and bringing services in house, and reducing the ratio between the highest and lowest paid in the council – it should be brought down from 13:1 to 10:1, for a start – that will also send a signal that we’re serious and make people more confident.

What do you want to see come out of Labour Party conference?

There’s lots of policies but the key thing is to restore conference as the sovereign policy-making and decision-making body of the party. The fragmentation of power represented by the National Policy Forum system needs to end. We need a democratic party. At the same time, everyone at all levels including the top of the party needs to accept that Corbyn is our leader and unite so we can be strong and really take on this government which is serving the interests of a tiny minority.

There’s a debate in the Labour Party about free movement and migrants’ rights. What’s your view? What would you do about it as mayor?

There’s no such thing as migrants as a separate category of people, there are people who’ve come from other countries and want a decent, happy life, like all of us. Free movement is about people being able to go and find that decent life. We have to start working collectively for the good of all, not discriminating against people. The problem is not immigration, it is neoliberalism and austerity. Economics is the fundamental divider on this planet, it is making people fight over scarce resources when we should be concentrating on those who have the vast majority of the wealth. Humanity must share, in its own interests and for the future of the planet.

Thinking about the human realities of people who want to move around and are being targeted for it, whether that’s European migrants coming here or anyone else, is why I voted “remain” in the referendum, despite my longstanding hostility to the way the EU works – it’s neoliberal policies, the way it treated Greece, its lack of democracy.

I’ve signed the Labour Campaign for Free Movement statement and I want to lead a council that stands up for migrant’s rights, whether on specific things like opposing the Home Office’s push to persecute rough sleepers or just taking a strong political stand and speaking up.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply? theclarionmag@gmail.com

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