Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Squaring up for a fight

Labour must treat the local elections as the starting gun of a fight for a fair deal for our communities, says Jack May

Even while storm clouds of international tension continue to brew and shocking instances of actively harmful government incompetence dominate the headlines, both Labour and the Tories march inexorably closer to the local elections.

Though not all parts of the country will go to the polls on May 3rd, council seats and entire councils will be up for grabs across a whole range of areas, and the fact that all seats in all of London’s boroughs are up for election is sure to mean the vote will be an outsize item on the news agenda.

According to pollsters, the hype of the moment, and the mere fact of being in opposition, have put Labour on course for a very good night, particularly in London. If the latest dedicated London polls, conducted by Queen Mary, University of London, with YouGov, bear fruit, Labour could well take overall control of Barnet, Wandsworth, and Westminster councils, putting it in charge of 23 of London’s 32 boroughs.

This would be an astonishing success, representative of the one area where Corbyn’s transformation has proved particularly appealing – London’s coalition of wealthy liberals, the just-about-managings, ethnic minorities and old-school socialists.

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While the immediate priority has to be taking this fight to the doorstep – and the legions of canvassers, volunteers and candidates are breaking new ground and fighting challenging wards as well as defending fragile battlegrounds – Labour councillors face a pressing problem as soon as the final votes are counted.

Local government funding is in the middle of one of its greatest ever crises. By 2020, the amount of central government funding that authorities receive will have shrunk by 77 per cent from their 2015 levels.

As things stand (as of the general election last year), the money English local authorities get from central government has been cut by 40 per cent, which has translated into cuts of more than a quarter in local authorities’ budgets, with the only thing saving most councils from the abyss being additional money raised locally.

It is hard to be melodramatic about how serious this is, because local government faces an existential shortfall in funding.

Even if councils turned off every street light, closed every children’s centre, library, museum, and leisure centre, stopped maintaining every park and open space, shut every discretionary bus route and left every single pothole unfilled, they’d still face a £5.8bn funding gap, according to the Local Government Association.

And while authorities across the country have made vast savings already, there is a limit to how far this can go without impacting everyone’s lives – not just those most in need of council services.

The Tories’ cynical solution – to raise the additional council tax that authorities can charge – is intended to back councils into a corner. Damned if they do – residents are unlikely to welcome higher rates of such a tangible tax that falls so arbitrarily by 1992 property values – and damned if they don’t, as the government can wash its hands, claiming to have put funding power in councils’ hands.

On the more mundane level, there are poorly managed public-private partnerships on everything from waste to school maintenance that have cropped up in more recent years, with councils farming out services as cheaply as they dare. Residents are waking up to the fact that cheaper service normally means less service, and their ire is being aroused.

On more severe levels, anecdotes abound of mental health support workers who are only on hand to respond to critical emergencies because the council cannot afford to pay them for more; housing shortages so severe that at-risk families end up encouraged to stay in the clutches of abusive relatives because there’s nowhere else for them to go; a homelessness crisis that even the most determined bypasser can no longer pretend not to notice.

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Local authorities are now the coalface of Cameron and Osborne’s orgiastic austerity misadventure – the looming battleground shaping up even as its architects pat each other approvingly on the back online.

More broadly, the gaunt black figure of Grenfell Tower necessarily haunts this election, reminding us as it does of what happens when a council whose reserves stretch into the hundreds of millions fails to guarantee its poorest citizens’ safety while splurging, until as late as 2015, on an opera festival.

We should not have to put up with this from our local councils any longer. If Labour does as well as it is forecast to in next month’s local elections, it is vital that council leaders, councillors, London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn team up to deliver the strongest possible message to the government. Whether through unsafe housing, inadequately funded social care, or policing stripped back to the bone, taking care of our communities on the cheap costs lives.

Labour must ready itself to fight for a better deal.

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Jack May is a Progress columnist. He tweets at @JackO_May

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