By Sacha Ismail
In the last decade local authorities, consistently disempowered by central government since the 1980s, have been subjected to sustained and vicious attack. It is not too much exaggeration to say that local government, certainly as we knew it in the recent past, is being destroyed.
Since “austerity” began in 2010, councils have lost something like 60pc of their central government funding – and are now facing further cuts. The cuts have fallen disproportionately on poorer communities and on Labour local authorities. The flip side of the staggering statistics is the growth of human suffering as local services and jobs people relied on disappear. The gutting of local government has been an absolutely central to the Tories’ assault on working-class rights and living standards over the last decade.
Momentum’s new strategy document, “Socialist Organising in a New Era” (https://peoplesmomentum.com/updates/socialist-organising-in-a-new-era) refers to local government a fair bit. Among other things, it says:
“Deepen alliances with… socialist… councillors.”
“Our aim is to build a well-organised socialist current at every level of the Party, in local government…”
“As we’ve seen in Preston and Salford, committed socialists can use local government to make a real difference to people’s lives, and Momentum will support and encourage this new municipal socialist movement. We’re also assisting Momentum members to develop the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the selection process and campaign to become a councillor. We’ll continue the Future Councillors Programme and we’ll relaunch Momentum’s Councillors’ Network – a home for socialist councillors across the country, where they can debate and develop policy and explore how Labour councils can engage with and support local communities.”
But the document says virtually nothing about what “socialist” or “left” councillors or councils should be doing, and nothing about the fundamental issue of council cuts.
(In other words, rather than seeking to push Labour councillors or raise the political level among them, Momentum is reflecting and reproducing their general lack of fight. It is not at all clear what the Momentum Councillors’ Network does, or even that it actually functions as a meaningful network, even to the extent of its “members” being collectively in touch with each other.)
At the 18 March meeting about the strategy document, questions about these issues got relatively little response.
In the break out group about local government, a Momentum full-timer responded by saying that the key issue was how councils can make up funding lost from central government (ie by raising money themselves, locally) and that “community wealth building” as practiced in Preston is a good model.
This is not the place for an indepth criticism of the “Preston model”. Often “Preston” and “Salford” seem to be brandished as magic solutions without those doing so explaining – or perhaps even knowing – much about what has been done in those authorities. What is clear is that Preston and Salford councils have, like others, made deep cuts, and that neither has done or is doing much of anything to generate campaigning against cuts and to win restored funding from the government.
For whatever reasons, Momentum seems to have got into a political “space” where it seems to regard fighting over council funding as impossible or undesirable, even on the level of just verbally raising it as a demand. (This despite the fact that the demand to reverse all council cuts was included in the 2019 Labour manifesto.)
Without fighting on that, talk about “muncipal socialism”, “socialist strategy” in local government, “left” or “pro-working class” policies and so on, seems pretty hollow. Trying to find ways to make up money locally cannot possibly reverse cuts or even prevent further ones; and it in practice far more regressive in terms of where money is raised from and funding for poorer areas. It essentially means accepting defeat.
Even if what is being done in, for instance, Salford is genuinely clearly better than most Labour councils – and Momentum doesn’t really explain what it has involved – it must be very limited in the context of the lost funding. In an article in Tribune https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/01/sensible-socialism-the-salford-model advocating the “Salford model”, council leader Paul Dennett says the council has cut a majority of its workforce, but done so in relatively humane way, with few compulsory redundancies. The article says nothing about fighting cuts.
Shortly before “Socialist organising for a new era” came out, Momentum did promote a meeting called by Lambeth local government Unison to discuss building a union and Labour network to fight council cuts. An NCG member attended the meeting and spoke positively about developing an initiative on these issues. Yet none of that is reflected in the document or what Momentum is saying and doing.
Given its weight and connections across the Labour Party and beyond, Momentum could make a major difference to generating a fight back. However, it it continues to advocate getting more “left” councillors while saying nothing about cuts and local government struggles more generally, it will instead play a fundamentally negative role.
The first most basic question is: does Momentum want to see a fight to stop further cuts and win restored funding from central government, or not? If it does, the first thing is to publicly and clearly advocate it.