By Councillor Jumbo Chan and Jake Rubin
For many members, one of the most palpable yet oft-overlooked organs of the Labour Party are the local Labour Groups of councillors. These Labour Groups and their leaders, which control many councils up and down the country, are currently probably the best embodiment of what Labour in power actually looks like. Yet, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s election four years ago, the vision of Corbynism is still far from being fully realised at local government level.
The resistance to neo-liberalism shown nationally by the Corbyn leadership has – with perhaps a few notable exceptions – rarely been matched by a similar commitment by Labour in local government. The neo-liberal grip of ‘no alternative’ continues apace with academisation, regeneration and outsourcing, often in direct opposition to local Labour Party members. Despite all of this, there are currently very few formal party mechanisms which members can use to influence any change locally. It is not surprising then that members may feel disconnected from and even frustrated at local government.
At present, the leaders of many councils are elected exclusively by the Labour Group of councillors. This might mean that despite being in charge of a local authority where there may be thousands of Labour Party members, a local Labour leader could potentially be selected by only a few dozen people. Last year’s Democracy Review included proposals to reform the Labour Party’s local government structures. Yet there has been little sign that the NEC will implement these recommendations. This is why the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) are supporting two rule changes at this year’s conference, which we hope will overturn the current status quo in local government.
The first rule change (submitted by Brent Central CLP) would extend democracy by allowing local members and affiliated trade unionists to elect the leaders of local Labour Groups under a one-member-one-vote system. The second (submitted by Leyton and Wanstead CLP) would see the Local Campaign Forums – currently responsible for scrutinising and observing local Labour councillors – being upgraded to Local Government Committees, which were abolished during the Blair years. The new Local Government Committees would give members more say in policy development, add more accountability over the implementation of the manifesto, and remove the conflict of interest created by councillors sitting on a body that is supposed to be holding them to account.
As long as leaders are elected exclusively by local Labour Groups of councillors, members have very few formal tools to hold them to account. Such power imbalance is also more striking when one considers that leaders often have the power to appoint other councillors onto cabinets and committees, both of which often come with monetary allowances. We believe the current set of arrangements damages the relationships between leaders, councillors and members. These bonds are too important to throw away, but can be refreshed and allowed to flourish if we extend democracy.
The present lack of democracy is also apparent in how local Labour Groups currently operate. Local Labour Party members currently can pass as many motions as they want – to demand that their Labour Group resist academisation, cancel a regeneration project or bring services inhouse. But with local Labour leaders seemingly beholden only to their councillors, and vice versa, Labour Groups could be described almost autonomous kingdoms with power unto themselves. With almost no formal mechanisms, except for a reselection process every four years, many members may feel enfeebled and powerless.
People join the Labour Party for a variety of reasons, with some choosing not to attend meetings and take part in many Labour Party activities. In our view this is hardly unexpected – if we as a party fail to give members the respect they deserve, then we should not be surprised if they are disengaged. By giving members the basic democratic instruments needed to influence and effect real change – allowing them to elected local Labour leaders, and letting them better hold their Labour councillors to account – we can go some way to renewing our party.
At this fourth anniversary of the sensational election of Corbyn, we should reflect on how we can democratise our party further so as to galvanise members, and perhaps, enable the election of more local Corbyns. This would not only allow a great swell of energy – currently untapped – to be unleashed, but would also further secure the legacy of the Corbyn project by enabling its percolation locally throughout the country.
Labour in local government represents an important constituent element of the Labour Party, and thus the broader movement’s effort to elect a Labour Government. Despite this, for too long there has been a huge gulf between local members, and the Labour Groups of councillors and leaders. Just as last year’s reforms to the MP selection process sought to ensure a more complete relationship between Labour Party members and our representatives in Parliament, this year’s CLPD rule changes can do much to bring us closer to our representatives in local government. Only then will we arrive at a scenario where all organs of the national Labour Party can work in harmony to achieve our collective goal of a society run in the interests of the many, not just the few.
Jumbo Chan and Jake Rubin
Jumbo Chan (@JumboChan) is a Labour Party councillor in Brent and a member of the London Labour Regional Executive Committee
Jake Rubin (@JakeRubin__) is Assistant Secretary of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy