Local government is considered by many in the UK to be a joke. Services provided by ‘the council’ are generally understaffed and under-resourced. Local democracy is non-existent, given that the one-in-three people who do vote do so not on local issues, but national ones. The consquence is that 95% of councillors can do almost whatever they like without affecting their electability. But most importantly, councils only control about one quarter of their revenues: most of what they spend is paid for and regulated by Whitehall. It is therefore unsurprising that we seldom hear of councils being the launchpad of radical change, even though this happens more often than you’d think.
In the past thirty years, various policies such as local currencies; universal free school meals; the living wage; nuclear-free zones; council house building and more have been dreamt up and put into practice by councils of various political hues. On the whole, these have been good ideas, but in the age of Militant it meant a handful of councils running into terrible financial problems and being subject to government intervention. While the Labour Party routed out the destructive and politically toxic Militant tendency (and the pendulum swung a little too far the other way, towards bland centrisim) the Thatcher government dismantled the Greater London Authority, fearful that Ken Livingstone’s socialist programme was proving far too popular amongst Londoners.
Nevertheless, is the time not right for councils to use a little spark of radicalism and creativity to counterbalance the Coalition’s austerity agenda? Call it what you like, Municipal Socialism, high spending, local democracy, there is a school of thought which suggests that local government has tremendous power in its hands if it uses it wisely. For example, Tower Hamlets borough council has restored its own version of the Education Maintenance Allowance after the Coalition scrapped it; abolished fees for social care even as the national Labour Party rowed back from its plan for a National Care Service; and has now scrapped translation services, instructing the borough’s large immigrant community to take up its free English language classes if they want to access services.
I’m confident that if Tower Hamlets can do all this despite draconian spending cuts, people will begin asking why it is that their council can’t as well. Remember that Ken Livingstone established a London register of same-sex relationships which led to the creation of civil partnership in just a few years, and same-sex marriage just a few years after that. Southwark council introduced free school meals for all primary school children in 2011, and the Conservative government is rolling out the policy nationally next year.
So whatever administration you have in your Town Hall, ask what your Labour, Independent, Green or nationalist councillors are doing to make their community better. If you are not satisfied that your town is being adequately defended against the tidal wave of cuts and reforms that threaten to divide and weaken us, then it’s down to you to “be the change”. Don’t be dissuaded by talk of what is supposedly impossible: we can make things better if we put some elbow grease into it.
- Lambeth could be first borough to ban booze after midnight (antonellapilato.wordpress.com)
- My Home Town Crawley: Crawley Council Full Public Meeting, 7.30pm Wednesday, 23rd Oct. BEDROOM TAX! (streetdemocracy.wordpress.com)
- Tower Hamlets fairness commission reports (theguardian.com)
- Oldham Labour Group Friday Briefing (01/11/13) (oldhamlabourgroup.wordpress.com)