Labour's Localism Problem
“It’s all linked, none of this is a coincidence, Momentum will find a reason to remove us all. And if they can't find a reason, they'll create one,” were the words of one backbench London councillor to me last week. It explains the move by Labour council leaders to show solidarity with the Leader of the London Borough of Haringey, Cllr Claire Kober, against Labour’s Momentum controlled National Executive Committee.
Momentum’s campaign against Haringey Labour Group has mirrored a growing Corbynite interest in the politics of development. As I suggested last year, the next front in Momentum’s war on Labour councils will come through the planning committee. Ever since Corbyn’s intervention in the regeneration debate, local authorities with ambitious development plans have been under increased scrutiny. The logic is simple, no Labour council is without controversial planning decisions. At some point every Labour council will be confronted with their own “HDV” moment.
Last week’s NEC proclamation has been viewed, fairly, as an attempt to make an example out of Haringey. The message is simple, Labour councils looking to pursue ambitious regeneration plans will be met with national censure and local de-selection campaigns.
Since 2010 Labour councils have been forced to reduce headcount, freeze pay and hike council tax. But in light of this they have protected vital services, brought forward regeneration and dealt with the myriad of other statutory responsibilities for which Westminster has been happy to pass the buck (looking at you social care). The flexibility that has been traditionally offered to Labour councils by the national party, has given Labour in local government the latitude to meet these challenges and surpass expectations.
Most of Labour’s leaders are realists and all of them see the daunting challenges facing their local authorities coming down the track. Further reductions in revenue support, greater demand for higher quality services, new resource intensive responsibilities (social care again) and the need for more and more affordable homes. None of the steps necessary to tackle these challenges will be met without resistance.
Add to this the growing suspicion amongst council leader’s that even if Momentum’s expectations were met, they cannot be trusted to stay out of the affairs of local authorities. The replacement of Ann Black (Chair of Labour’s disputes panel) by Christine Shawcroft (Ex Tower Hamlets councillor and Lutfur Rahman supporter), shocked so many not because Black was well liked, but because she was perceived as being firmly on the Left of the Labour Party. If even Ann Black is deemed outside the tent, then there is absolutely nothing to stop Momentum from confecting local outrage and targeting pragmatic Labour councils.
Which bring us back to the letter in The Sunday Times. It is designed for one thing only, reminding Momentum that whilst Corbyn’s tenure as Labour Leader is currently a closed question, it would be an overwhelming misjudgement to presume that over 70 Labour leaders, each with their own mandates, can be individually replaced by compliant Momentum councillors.
The Government looks shaky and Corbyn’s Labour has an opportunity unlike any other in post war British politics. However, an all-out rebellion of local government leaders could severely undermine Corbyn’s effort to become Prime Minister. And whilst an act of defiance by Labour leaders is unlikely to deter Momentum for long, it may will serve to remind Corbyn that as far as local government is concerned there are still elements of the Labour Party beyond his reach.