One of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest allies has been forced to quit his frontbench team just days after calling for council taxes to be doubled on expensive homes.
Chris Williamson, the shadow fire minister, resigned on Thursday amid a fierce Tory backlash against his proposal for a ‘Differential Progressive Council Tax’ plan to hike bills for the better off and freeze them for the poorest.
The Derby North MP, a loyal friend of the Labour leader, had told HuffPost UK that his proposal would help the party “regain the initiative” in local areas hit by Conservative cuts.
But his plan sparked disquiet among fellow shadow ministers and councillors and it appears that Williamson forced out after his HuffPost interview was raised with the leadership on Wednesday night.
Party sources confirmed that Williamson has resigned in a ‘mutual decision’ made by himself and Corbyn. It was made clear that the choice was to either stick to collective responsibility and official policy or leave the frontbench.
It is understood that the leader’s office initiated the discussion that led to his departure and Williamson felt that he wanted the freedom to continue to speak his mind on policy.
In a statement issued by the party’s HQ, Williamson said: “I will be standing down from my role with immediate effect so that I can return to the backbenches, where I will be campaigning on a broader range of issues.
“I will continue to loyally support the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn from the backbenches and hope to be a voice for the party’s members.”
Corbyn added: “I am grateful for Chris’ work on the frontbench, particularly on fire safety following the appalling Grenfell Tower Fire.
“I know that on the backbenches, Chris will be a strong campaigner on a range of crucial issues as well as serving his constituents with dedication.”
But one shadow fronbench source added: “He freelanced on something that is nowhere near our policy. What he proposed went against our manifesto pledges on tax made in the general election.
“He didn’t consult his colleagues in the party frontbench, he didn’t tell the Shadow Treasury team and he didn’t consult Labour councillors who have worked hard to keep council tax down and point out it is the Tories who are to blame overall for cuts locally.
“You can’t go around making up policy as a frontbencher. It’s not even his shadow department, he was in the shadow Home Office team.”
However Williamson’s defenders say that he was simply offering a radical alternative and had always stressed it was up to local Labour council groups to adopt.
And in a longer statement on Thursday evening, he said: “I’ve taken this decision to bring me closer to the membership of our party and to allow me to work on a broader range of issues, from environmental policy, animal rights and local government.
“Leaving my role as Shadow Minister for Fire and Emergency Services was not an easy decision to reach. However, I have every confidence that Jeremy’s Labour Party is going in the right direction.
“My experience on the frontbench has shown me how the Tories have lied about the amount of available reserves held by Fire Authorities. They have attempted to distract the public from the government’s dangerous cuts to the service by pointing to misleading figures on the falling number of fire related deaths, rather than the large increase in the total number of rescues.
“I intend to continue to champion the membership, fight for my constituents and make Derby North a shining example of how Labour can win broad support in marginal constituencies whilst maintaining socialist principles at our core.”
The ‘Williamson model’, as it was termed by activists, proposed freezing council tax for properties rated in Bands A to C, which were rated under 1991 valuations as worth less than £68,000.
Homes in Band D, rated between £68,000 and £88,000 and considered the ‘average’ by Whitehall, would pay 20% more.
More expensive homes would see progressively higher rates, right up to a 100% increase for the highest band H, which covers properties worth more than £320,000.
Although Williamson had stressed that his plan was not official party policy, and it was up to individual town halls to adopt, HuffPost understands that there was unease among shadow ministers at the bad publicity surrounding the idea.
With crucial local elections due in May, Labour councillors across the country had complained to their HQ that the party risked having its main message on Tory council tax rises derailed by the shadow minister’s intervention.
On Wednesday, the Conservatives began their campaign, tweeting out Williamson’s words in poster format.
In his interview, Williamson told HuffPost that his plans would require popular support in local referendums, but said the argument was winnable as it was about local budgets “for the many, not the few”.
But none of the party’s councils has yet backed the idea, amid fears that it would prove too radical and unpopular with voters.
Councils across the country are this month setting their tax rates and budgets for the coming year, with many including Tory boroughs set to use new freedoms to increase bills by up to 5.99% to meet social care costs.
Communities Secretary Sajid Javid is set to confirm plans which councils say offer inadequate funding, with many warning council tax bills will have to go up by up to £200 a year, the highest rise in 14 years.
Williamson had told HuffPost: “Unless the Government has a change of heart, this could be the only a way of arresting the cuts and generating some income to start to grow local services. Obviously it would be up to the local area.
“There is a lot of support for it. Regrettably no local authority has taken the plunge and implemented it yet. I can understand the anxiety because it would no doubt attract a lot of adverse publicity.
“You can imagine the Daily Mail and Daily Express would go to town on a proposition like this.
“It’s not a panacea, it’s a response to a terrible situation. I think it’s an argument that could be won.”
But Shadow Communities Secretary Andrew Gwynne said on Thursday: “This proposal is not our policy and it won’t be. Unlike this proposal, we recognise that each council area has a different ability to raise income locally and so we will look at that as part of a fair redistribution mechanism, linking social need, health inequality, urban deprivation and rural sparsity.
“As set out in our election manifesto, Labour will also take a different approach to this Tory Government by acting in the interests of the many not the few. Labour has guaranteed no income tax rises for 95% of people.
“During the general election we said that we would initiate a review into local government, examine finance, devolution and leadership - and this will be a major focus for my team and the Labour Party this year.”
In a new article on Friday on LabourList, Williamson said: “Perhaps instead of cowering it’s time to radicalise our local areas and fight back against inequality.”
He added: “Although my idea for a progressive council tax referendum wasn’t the cause of my departure, it was one idea I wanted to champion from the back benches.”