Activists' Inquiry - Entering Councils, and In Motion

Activists' Inquiry  }

The Editors / February 23, 2020
Last month, we asked for contributions on the left's experience with entering local government. Now, we're asking about an important feature of Labour Party meetings: motions 2911 words / 12 min read

Photo:Bradford Council Chamber by Michael D Beckwith

Last month, New Socialist launched its first Activists’ Inquiry of 2020 with a series of questions about the left in local government. The responses, which speak to both the frustrations and the successes of activism around the councils, are gathered below.

Although perhaps difficult to remember after the ignominy of election defeat, the 2019 Labour conference was notable for the victory of a series of left-wing motions which had been arranged by newly-founded campaigns, formally external to Momentum: Labour for a Green New Deal, the Labour Campaign for Free Movement, and Labour 4 Day Week. That these motions were organised behind is a testament to the hard work of the people championing them. Equally, however, people have reflected upon motions which haven’t been brought: notably, Rebecca Long Bailey has seemed to rule out decriminalising cannabis, which has provoked reflection on the failure to push for drug policy reform (although a campaign does exist). More difficult, though, are the questions which the election poses for our approach to motions and the salience of changing Labour’s programme for government – what is the value of policy motions when those policies aren’t about to be implemented? What else might motions do?

Our theme for the next month, then, is ‘in motion’. Questions which might be responded to could include: What sorts of motions have been passed in your branches or CLP? Who wrote them? How were they campaigned for? What motions have fallen, and why? Are there some topics which don’t feel appropriate? What are the obstacles to writing and passing motions? What shape do motions take? Do you have a template which you are expected to follow? Have any motions been ruled out of order? What sort of motions have been presented by right-wing members? How have they been challenged or defeated? Beyond their topic, what sorts of purpose do motions serve? What sorts of thing do they ask for? To what extent have motions been used to direct local party activity? To what extent are they more nationally focused? Have motions been passed on local government matters? How can motions generate movement?

Contributions of less than 500 words, as well as images, should be submitted here. You’ll notice that one of the submissions below is longer than 500 words – if you have something longer that you’d like to be published anonymously, you can get in touch via [email protected], but briefer is better!

The deadline for this inquiry is Monday 23rd March.

Anonymous, Greater London

Being a left-wing councillor is hard. Since being elected in 2018, I feel like the inability to make changes whilst an elected member in a Labour run council has actually pushed me further left, which was surprising. The inability to change certain things like planning legislation and money from central government is the biggest barrier to enacting the fundamental change I and others want to see locally in our communities. But the levels of bureaucracy, well-paid executive directors with competing agendas and a constantly warring Labour group really doesn’t make it any easier.

In my experience, much of local government has been about clashes of personalities, managing egos, and separating the people who actually work hard at the job from the people who like collecting the stipend. The dedication and hard work of some of my colleagues has been matched by the shocking laziness of others. It’s been very demoralising and has made me feel a lot less hopeful than I ever thought it would.

Labour in local government as group has not moved with the membership, and you can feel it when you’re in a room with colleagues from councils across the country. Our capacity to imagine seems to begin and end at a Labour government, and while that is a fundamental issue for us, it isn’t the only thing that matters. I have learnt that changing how local government works means convincing a lot of people you generally don’t agree with to support you, and that isn’t easy. And we need our leadership to be braver in challenging the status quo that is handed down to us from government.

It has been a lonely place, and I wonder how many of us will be able to stick it out for another term.

Man, South East England

I was initially politicised in the late 1960s by the prospect of being conscripted and killed in a US led war against the people of Vietnam. I first voted in 1972 for a Labour government lead by Gough Whitlam. He was a radical socialist who changed Australia more in three years than any other leader. He was so effective he was undemocratically ejected by the Queens representative.

Fast forward to 2015 and Jeremy Corbyn standing for Labour and, having that same sense of excitement and being connected that I had way back in 1972, I re-joined the party and joined Momentum and got actively involved. Early Momentum meetings were exciting and engaging and powerful and gave us all hope. I had recently retired after working for 40 years in academia, where I had been an activist and troublemaker, on the outside of day-to-day politics. I had never thought of seeking political office. Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum and the people I met through that changed my idea about getting involved. Going to local Labour Party meetings, I was shocked at the divisions between groups within the local party. My views about the world were almost always at odds with those running the local party and those who were elected councillors. The Labour-led council seemed to keep making decisions that made things worse for the most vulnerable in the city; there was an attitude amongst councillors that they knew best and did not really like being challenged. My academic work and activism had taught me to ask questions and argue for an evidence-based approach to decision making, based on principles and values.

I was elected as a Labour Group observer for my CLP and started attending the monthly Labour Group meetings. At one of the first after the council elections, where we did not do as well as we had hoped, the Labour councillors were attacking the elected officers that ran the local party (elections a few months before council elections had elected a broadly left slate) and threatened to withhold promised funds for a part-time community organiser. They had the attitude that they ran the party and ordinary members should just do what they were told. One councillor said attending local branch EC meetings was like ‘purgatory’. I could not stop myself from saying to the group that I was shocked at the language they used, and while on the one hand they talked about all working together they did not see anything wrong with slagging off those on the left who went out canvassing for them. This made me think we needed to change the people on the council to better reflect the wider community. Until then I had not thought of running for office.

When I decided to run for council I was supported by comrades in Momentum. I got through the selection process and put myself forward for a number of wards. A few days after the list of candidates and their proposed wards was published, the sitting councillor in one of the wards rang me up and said, basically, how dare I stand against him, and that I should withdraw as I was an outsider. I contacted the branch secretary and we put in a complaint to the party about my being bullied – 18 months on this complaint has not been considered. I said I would not withdraw. As I was not on the selected list, I could not canvass members, but I heard from members that the sitting candidate was using his ‘canvassing’ to put them off supporting me. I lost the trigger ballot vote 12-8, and was thus not able to go to the next stage and canvass support by the members. He subsequently lost his seat. I was selected to go forward to a selection meeting in another ward. I was told I had to follow the whipped position on council decisions. We were in the middle of a local battle to oppose the proposed closure of council-run care homes in the city. On reflection I felt I could not support the council position and withdrew as a candidate.

During 2018 I canvassed for a candidate in an outer city ward. He lost. In January 2019, a sitting independent councillor stood down in that ward and a byelection was called. Momentum met and discussed what we should do; it was agreed that I should be put forward as the candidate to test the water for a left councillor. Under local rules (I think) the candidate in the May 2018 election was given the right to be the candidate in the byelection. He stood, and won the by-election in March 2019. For the May 2019 election I put myself forward for the ward. The newly elected councillor supported another person, which of course is perfectly reasonable. However, he did this by taking his preferred candidate around to members and told them that I was too middle class and really had no idea about the needs of the residents. This was before I had any chance to speak to members myself to put my case. I won the selection after two rounds, largely because of some excellent support from a core group of Momentum members who lived in the ward. The newly elected councillor canvassed for me once for 30 minutes over the entire campaign, and we had little support from the other councillors. I was brilliantly supported by my Momentum comrades and we adopted a more listening/community engagement approach. This went down well with residents. We got a lot of case work and comments that they had had little contact with Labour and were pretty disappointed with the Labour council. We won by 29 votes.

Since being elected I have tried hard to listen to residents and where possible help them. It has been hard to understand how the council works, who is responsible for what and how we get things done. Decision making is slow and we get no feedback when actions raised are either completed or held up. It is only by visiting all areas of the ward that I can check what has or has not been done, I can do this because of have no other job.

I have argued at Labour Group meetings for greater accountability and transparency. I raised several times my concern that we had no minutes or action points from our group meetings. I argued that without this how could we keep members informed, and how could we be held to account. No councillor supported my proposals, and were hostile, saying this was a waste of time, they kept their own records and could see no point wasting time on minutes nobody would read. Our meetings are vague and unstructured, with little idea before the meeting what was coming up. I wanted an agenda with clear items and structure so we could get papers before meetings and thus have informed decision making. Cabinet members run the council and new backbench councillors are pretty much told to get in line and support their decisions without question. There is a passive aggressive approach and most backbenchers appear to go along for any easy ride. On a number of important city developments, member briefings occur at the same time as press releases go out to the public – and often just days before we are whipped to vote in support of a position. We have no time to consult or argue or make amendments. If we challenge these decisions we are basically shouted down and told to get in line and just follow the whip. Outside developers seem to be able to insist on housing developments that contain few or no properly affordable housing, despite it being considered acceptable that they budget for a 15-20% profit on the development.

My opinions are often dismissed as being naïve, or that we tried that before and it didn’t work. We have a stated policy of bringing things back in house and spending money locally, but when contracts have come up for renewal we rarely seem to apply this approach, for a mix of reasons. One of our biggest outsourced contracts is for 25 years!

There was/is open hostility toward Jeremy Corbyn. Most openly express the view that it was his fault that we lost the election, few seem to have any reflection of their own role in the defeat (and their stance on Brexit which was aligned with Starmer’s approach). Most support Starmer and want to go back to a ‘winnable’ Blairite mark 2 approach. Our local CLP voted, just, for Starmer. There is pretty open hostility toward trades unions and bottom up democracy. Ordinary members are meant to canvass and not rock the boat. The local MPs office and staff whip attendance at local branch meetings where there are any votes to be cast, and use all sorts of tricks to block left membership engagement.

Being the sole left voice on the council is challenging. I am very well supported by my left caucus and Momentum comrades who are strong, wise and brave. One ‘old hand’ recently told me that resilience is a key requirement for being a councillor. Perhaps 40 years of fighting big business and vested interests in global nutrition and health has taught me that if you have principles and values you have to fight for what you know is right and don’t give in.

I am an old white university-educated heterosexual male, an all too common profile for city councillors across the country. We need to change that profile. Members must have more say, people from diverse backgrounds need to be supported and enabled to stand (economically and otherwise) for council. I know lots of brilliant young women who can’t stand because they simply can’t afford to. And of course, we need open selection so any members can come forward and make a case for selection- we know many great people are out there and blocked, largely, I suspect, because they see what a hostile environment it is. It will remain that way until we support more left-wing candidates to stand, and once elected be supported.

Man, Greater London

I’m not a councillor, but I’ve been involved heavily in my local party since 2015, and we’ve had some success in getting left-wing (or Momentum-backed) candidates into local government. There seems to have been a shift in the council leadership – it’s still held by the same people, but left-wing councillors from before 2015 have been given positions they wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near previously. New councillors, too, have been given committee posts and suchlike. There’s obviously an open question about whose interests are more closely served by this – is it infiltration or incorporation? It’s probably a little bit of both, but I’d expect that with a shift in the politics of the party nationally we might see a swing towards the latter.

The biggest problem, though, has been around selections. Right from the beginning, we have struggled with managing the selection process – not in terms of the obstacles to getting left-wing candidates selected (although there were several!) but in determining who should be the left-wing candidate for a given position. It never felt like there was clear guidance from Momentum, nationally, on this question, and we’ve swung between several positions.

One thing is deciding a list of Momentum-backed candidates, in a similar way to how the Labour Party panels people. There are Labour councillors, clearly on the right of the party, who have Momentum membership, so it’s not really a question of endorsing everyone who’s a Momentum member. There’s still difficulty there – even the active membership of Momentum is so varied and understandings of socialism and responsibilities as councillors differ greatly. There are people with quite an old-fashioned, Militant-influenced, idea of being a Labour councillor. There are others for whom Momentum membership was really a question of competence – the problem with existing councillors being they weren’t good enough, more than their politics per se.

But there are other questions. Who decides the candidates for each ward? The borough-wide Momentum group? Momentum members in the CLP? Momentum members in the ward? Does Momentum (or the left more broadly) need to agree a single candidate at all? What do Momentum-backed candidates do if they fail to be selected in their ward? Can they go to a later selection process? What does this mean for the candidates Momentum was previously backing in that ward? What if Momentum doesn’t agree an official candidate, or their decision isn’t respected – how are contests between left-wing candidates managed? How do we dust ourselves off afterwards and remain comradely? These aren’t petty problems – we are talking about stipends which are (at least for some people!) enormous amounts of money, as well as the prestige etc involved in being a councillor.

Time and again, these problems have come up and – along with other issues – caused division and demoralisation. If we’re going to put more emphasis on local government, they need to be resolved. After the general election, we’re even less able to sustain the kinds of internal arguments which selection processes seem to throw up.


The Editors (@newsocialistuk)

The New Socialist editorial collective.