By Mohan Sen
On 6 February, Keir Starmer spoke to a conference of the Labour group on the Local Government Association of councillors.He began with extravagant praise for various council leaders, and throughout the speech blurred between the idea that Labour councils are in a very difficult situation (true) and that their records are ones to be proud of (not true).In terms of the problems councils face, Starmer’s speech looked in the right direction. “Westminster has held onto powers that would be far better exercised [locally]… over the last decade, councils in England have seen their core funding cut by £15bn. Local government across the country is now facing a huge funding gap. It’s a shameful story… that story is about the long retreat of local government power in this country. It’s a story of centralisation and continuous cuts…“Thatcher, of course, wanted to turn back the post-war welfare state – but she didn’t want to return any power to local authorities. On the contrary, she wanted to crush local government, and cut funding even further. That was bad enough. But it was just a prelude to the assault on local government that occurred after 2010.”
Starmer referred positively to the expansion of local government powers in the late 19th century and to the post-war era.On the other hand he also referred positively to the Blair year, when councils did not experience swingeing cuts, but became ever more tightly limited by central government and ever less democratic in how they were run (cabinets, executive mayors, etc). During those years Labour council leaders pushed privatisation, outsourcing and the like with enthusiasm. All that should certainly give pause.Starmer gave a string of figures about the “local institutions [that] have disappeared” (youth centres, Sure Start centres, libraries, etc.)He promised to “keep pushing the Chancellor to provide the funding councils need – and were promised”. He gave no figure. He certainly did not commit to demanding and implementing reversal of all funding cuts the Tories have made since 2010.
Nor are Labour council leaders actively campaigning for that. Although they did call for it in 2018, through the Breaking Point campaign, they quietly abandoned the campaign and the demand only months later. The Corbyn leadership failed to back it, and certainly did not campaign to reverse all local government cuts – only to suddenly, at the last minute, drop a similar policy into the 2019 manifesto. Our council and party leaders, right and left, share responsibility for the failure to properly campaign to save local government services.In his speech Starmer promised to “end the long retreat of local government. And to empower our local leaders and local communities like never before.”There are very few details – and some references to regional devolution which, like the positive reference to Blair, suggest small, elected bodies or individual mayors covering very large regions, rather than genuinely re-empowered and meaningfully democratic local councils. The difference is crucial if we want to win radical, pro-working class policies and start to reshape society.Labour activists and trade unionists should push for more details, for genuine debate in the party, for a real re-empowerment of local government which must begin with massive investment in councils, reversing the damaging decade of cuts.
• Read Keir Starmer’s full speech at https://labour.org.uk/press/full-text-of-keir-starmers-speech-to-lga-labour-conference
• See also “A letter to my fellow Labour councillors” at https://leftfootforward.org/2021/01/stand-up-and-fight-back-an-open-letter-to-my-fellow-labour-councillors