WITH COUNCIL elections looming in London, the Tory press is full of increasingly worried articles about a Labour landslide. Pollsters are predicting a big increase in Labour votes, Labour councillors and even the possible capture of Tory strongholds like Wandsworth (Thatcher’s favourite council in the 1980s) and Barnet.
As Sadiq Khan recently said at the Wandsworth campaign launch – a Labour win in Wandsworth is the base from which we will get Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10. Gains would prove that the revitalised Labour Party with its left orientation is capable of winning, is able to tear down Tory strongholds and demoralise the bosses’ party.
Alongside this there are a number of Momentum members standing for election. However we have to be realistic, the numbers of left council candidates appears to be very small. The Labour right’s control of the Local Campaign Forums has meant that in many places only a handful of Momentum or socialist council candidates were let on the short list.
Despite repeated red scare stories in the press, even the shift in political alignment in Haringey, where most of the old so-called centrist councillors are standing down due to internal opposition over their gentrification housing policy, most of the new council candidates are not on the left. They have a good position on the housing issue but on many others their politics are not particularly radical.
Most Labour councillors and council candidates are still firmly on the moderate right, if not outright Progress members. The left, if they win seats, will be minorities on Labour councils.
The question then becomes how can left councillors organise to avoid being sucked into implementing the same old right wing policies and disillusioning their supporters?
And this is a pressing concern. Since austerity began around 2010, Labour councils have proved bitterly disappointing in their response. Preferring to manage decline instead of fighting the strangulation of local government, Labour councils have provoked angry demonstrations and opposition to the Tory cuts they are implementing. With protestations that ‘their is no alternative’ (as Thatcher liked to say), Labour councillors have voted for and implemented cuts, torn down housing estates, collaborated with profiteering building developers and castigated those who dared to oppose them.
Councillors that dared to voice any opposition – and there were precious few of them – were treated like pariahs. They were excluded from their Labour groups and manoeuvred or bullied out of reselection. Labour councillors are whipped even more viciously than mps; they are given no public freedom of criticism and find themselves disciplined if they even vote against proposals within the Labour group, let alone in full council meetings.
What is urgently needed is to network the left council candidates together so we can begin a fightback. They need to meet, discuss the local issues they are dealing with and think of ways to coordinate. There are a handful of existing left councillors in London who need to share their knowledge and experiences.
Those left councillors will no doubt be elected on politically modest manifestos with much to be modest about. Nevertheless it is important that they have a clear platform on which to operate, an understanding of local government finance, the scope and limitations of the law and be willing to act as tribunes of the people in the council chamber.
What would be a demoralising defeat is if the Momentum backed candidates get elected and then just end up meekly and uncritically siding with the right. The best way to prevent that is through them forming a coherent political argument around fighting cuts and opposing gentrification. But the councillors will only have the strength to push for more radical initiatives if they are organically connected with local campaigns and organisations. This means being involved in housing and education campaigns, being active with the trade unions and attending Momentum or other Labour left meetings. The left must have a conception of themselves as socialist activists first and foremost and being a councillor as only an aspect of that, another platform to fight from. The lure of being a ‘professional politician’ on the first rung of the career ladder must be resisted.
Momentum so far seems to have done nothing from central office to organise the local government work, focused as they are instead on (largely unsuccessfully) parachuting people into various MP selections over the heads of local groups. So some rank and file left activists have started to get organised to build a London wide forum to discuss these issues and provide a place for the council candidates to get together. We are coordinating this through local groups and want to make sure every left council candidate can be involved alongside other activists.
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