The debate on Labour councillors is heading in the wrong direction

Labour council leaders

By Councillor Josh Lovell

Nick Forbes, Labour’s leader in the Local Government Association [LGA], has announced the results of a survey about the general election, responded to by only one in eight of Labour’s councillors (see here).

I admit to being one of the 87% who did not respond. Unhelpfully, it appears councillors haven’t been sent the results. Nor can I find them published online.

We should take with a pinch of salt the conclusions drawn from any survey with a 13% response rate. We are told councillors believed that the two most significant factors in our loss were either dissatisfaction with Corbyn or the party’s stance on Brexit.

More significantly though, the poll highlighted the deep divide between the party’s membership and its local government representatives.

Whilst just 12% of Labour councillors felt our manifesto was “a vote-winner”, party members were overwhelmingly supportive of it, and the best available evidence has so far suggested that the manifesto was far from the cause of our loss.

LGA Labour poll results like this shouldn’t shock us; the limited transformation of the party since 2015 has scarcely touched local government, with the machinery of selections, portfolio and Group Leader elections, and the methods of holding councillors to account (or not) being almost identical to those designed by Blair.

Whilst some left-wingers have been elected into local government, the political outlook of Labour councillors has largely remained static. For example, half the poll’s respondents felt our manifesto didn’t place enough emphasis on crime and anti-social behaviour – despite it promising 2000 more frontline police officers than Johnson’s Tories, and that being one of Labour’s core messages for the past two years (unfortunately).

In the same interview, Forbes referred to the financial contribution ade to the central party through a mandatory levy on councillors. He said that nearly one councillor in three would be prepared to withhold it unless the party leadership “improved its relationship with local government”.

Aside from more NEC and National Policy Forum roles reserved for councillors (which Lisa Nandy has also called for, alongside the right of councillors to nominate leadership candidates), it isn’t clear precisely what Forbes expects from the party. It appears that Forbes sees the councillor levy as a lever to drive party democracy backwards.

It is right that councillors pay higher subs to the party, given the additional money we are provided as party representatives, but this shouldn’t grant us any greater say in policy or political direction. This must be set by our membership – which many councillors seem to have forgotten they are also part of.

The political basis for more local government NEC places is flawed regardless of the political levy if you want a genuinely member-led party. Irrespective of your position as a representative, councillors should be participating in elections to our ruling body on an equal basis with all other members. Clearly Forbes’ vision is for a more top-down, councillor-led democracy.

Furthermore, it would be ridiculous for the first national direct-action organised by LGA Labour to be a levy-strike against Labour, given that ten years of devastating cuts have not encouraged them to organise even one major political demonstration.

In June 2018 – during the Labour Party democracy review – Forbes was against local parties selecting their council group leaders (see here). Apparently it would be too divisive for members to have a direct say over these appointments? But the truth says otherwise.

With councils such as Tower Hamlets in London, who actively tried to use Tory anti-strike laws against local school staff, or the gentrification of the Latin Village by Haringey Council, it is clearly too divisive for our class if we don’t directly elect our local leadership. This should be a basic democratic right. And, despite Forbes, it can be enacted without breaking local government law.

Although it would be easy to blame the political direction of the national party for an election defeat, Labour in local government must takes its share of responsibility.

Far from the loss being a result of not involving councillors more in the party, the inability of Labour members to select and hold their local councillors to account has further disconnected party representatives from its members, and its core voting base.

• Josh Lovell is an opposition Labour Councillor (for Stevenage) on Hertfordshire County Council

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