Local government really matters and the crisis it faces today means that the area must be a major priority for the Labour leadership. Many of the public’s day-to-day needs fall to councils, especially those things that tend to frustrate people most. From social care to public health, education to bins and the maintenance of much of our public space, if Labour politicians hope to be popular with the electorate then they need to deliver at local level.
We know the reality of the cuts to local council budgets and the desperate impact they have had on communities, especially post-industrial towns like mine in Crewe. We also know that there are Labour councils, such as those near me in Preston, Salford and Trafford, which are delivering progressive solutions despite huge financial pressures.
But there is an obvious lack of a national strategy on the Left to confront the crisis facing local councils in the face of years of government cuts. Whether it’s the question of how to respond in policy terms, or a narrative explaining how the Tories have been responsible for the cuts which impact the services Labour councils provide, the bigger picture has been lacking.
Across the country there are countless councillors doing what they can to tackle the injustices that we see on a daily basis. We are the party’s first point of contact with the world outside of politics. The Labour Party needs to learn from those experiences and use the skills and expertise they provide. It’s time to build a campaign that can revive local government and its relationship with the communities it serves.
Let’s face it, the Tories have been rubbing their hands together with glee as they have devolved as much accountability as possible for cuts they have overseen. Under the current model of devolution, they maintain control with little responsibility – meaning that their prints are on every service provided, but they can hide in the shadows.
Back in the 1980s Margaret Thatcher pursued a ruthless policy of privatisation and outsourcing which forced local authorities to reward contracts through compulsory competitive tendering. More than 30 years later I think that we can agree that it has been a failed experiment. Public money has been wasted on shareholder profits and the cost of managing contracts, with neither the public nor the vast majority of councils now believing that outsourcing was a success.
What followed in 2009 was legislation that originally saw the formation of unitary authorities like my own Cheshire East County Council. This was built on further through The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016, which provided the creation of combined authorities by groups of two or more local authorities. This Westminster brainwave sucked jobs away from towns and fed into the detached feeling that many communities have; politics was something done to them not by them, with little local accountability.
George Osborne sold this direction with promises of democratic accountability, but the reality was a further hollowing out of politics. The most high-profile change was the introduction of mayors – an Americanising of our politics which sought to channel local government decisions through personalities rather than policy. At their worst, a mayor can become a remote figure from the public while being easily accessible to private interests, and at best they become the face of managing service cuts through the devolution agenda.
We have seen how this can be manipulated recently when a group of Conservative MPs blamed Manchester mayor Andy Burnham for the Covid fiasco that their own government was responsible for. Right-wing tabloids duly splashed their attacks all over their pages and a central government failure was devolved to local government again. Mission accomplished.
The reality is that, for many living in areas of high social need, having a Labour mayor or council promise fiscal autonomy has meant little more than permanent austerity and underfunding. That much is obvious in any ‘Red Wall’ seat. The Tories know that they can try to avoid blame by attacking local politicians, something they will no doubt ramp up as they try to dodge the public anger over their Covid-19 failures that will grow in the coming months.
If Labour representatives at local level look for solutions to tackle the bread and butter issues for ordinary people, maybe we stand a chance of turning the tide. But too often we are seen as the ones delivering the cuts – and, in many cases, people are right to feel frustrated. Few Labour councils have produced the kind of bold response that the crisis of local government requires, and even fewer still are seen to be fighting alongside the communities they represent against the cuts imposed by central government.
Recent years have seen numerous examples of Labour councils engaged in protracted battles against their own unionised workers who are trying to defend their jobs and local government services. This is not what our party was established to do – and, even beyond the point of principle, these decisions are remembered when we come to knock on doors. Council workers live in their communities, they serve them and they are seen by the vast majority of people as far more important than politicians.
So, why has the Labour Party not fought back more forcefully against this trap it often finds itself in? Sadly, in many cases, Labour councillors are themselves wedded to the privatisation agenda which has so badly damaged our local government. Sometimes they are ideological neoliberals, other times they simply have connections to local business interests – but whatever the reason, they make arguments that private providers are more efficient than their own councils at delivering services.
But this is simply not the case. A catalogue of failures have shown that private providers simply do not work at a local level. The pattern is familiar – a privateer takes over a service and, in order to try to generate profit, they cut workers’ wages and conditions, reduce services and leave poorer communities in the lurch. In many cases, this doesn’t even work on its own terms and they fail to make profits, meaning a wreckage is handed on to an even more disreputable provider and the race to the bottom accelerates.
Unison, the public services trade union estimates that every year, £4.6 billion is spent by central and local government on the procurement exercises required to award private contracts. Meanwhile, local residents will pay £217 billion in “user charges” for private finance initiative facilities between now and 2033 – while direct public ownership would be £3 billion per year cheaper. Privatisation is not cost effective, and we need to burst the myth that it is.
At this week’s party conference, Labour has talked about providing a new leadership. Nowhere is that needed more than in local government. It’s time for us to put our principles forward, fight for them and win people over to socialist values at a local level.
This starts with drawing a line in the sand over outsourcing. Councils across the country must use the example provided by the disastrous Serco and Sitel test and trace system, or the care home scandal that preceded it, to make the case that outsourcing is irresponsible, damaging to our communities and must be consigned to the past.
But outsourcing is not just bad for those who rely on services, it is bad for workers too. Outsourcing to private companies means workers enter a world of precarious work driven by corporate greed as staff lose their pay security. It means they can no longer get hired on full-time contracts with decent terms and conditions and that, when wage packets are wrong, they are harder to dispute.
Outsourced workers are often desperate for overtime or extra part-time jobs so that they can make ends meet, and many end up working gruelling hours with no hope of work life balance. I have spoken to countless workers, mainly women, who barely see their children as they cobble together enough work to pay the bills. The stress and worry impacts everyone and it doesn’t take much to imagine some of the long-term repercussions of this kind of daily battle.
It is time Labour councils stood with them. This means tackling head on the outsourcing scandal, which has seen private companies rip off the taxpayer, degrade our public services and put people at risk while remaining unaccountable to the people who rely upon and fund the services.
Millions of people work in local government. The power of this workforce must be used to rebuild our society after this pandemic. But to do that, we need to understand the weaknesses of the government’s devolution agenda in terms of democratic accountability, economic development and the financing of public services. And we need to not just understand it – but fight against it as a united party.
Therefore, the party must have a clear and consistent strategy across the country to address the crisis local government finds itself in. Years of government cutbacks have savaged our councils – but they can be revived, if we build a campaign that unites communities, unions and the party behind a common goal.