In an age of uncertainty and social instability, it’s easy to retreat into the comforts of myopia – while a hard Brexit would stifle our economic outlook, petty nationalism stifles our political vision.
Politicians have been slow to respond to this new landscape, as a new generation of young leaders from the inspirational women behind #MeToo and those campaigning for new gun laws in the US activate social change far quicker than governments can. Closer to home, organisations like Citizens UK, the Co-op Party, and Momentum have shown that the power to change society isn’t just about pulling levers in Whitehall.
Councils might be easy to dismiss as the ‘bins and dog-poo brigade’ but when it works well, local government is connected with our communities, and built on foundations of openness, transparency, and accountability. Since the great municipal reformers of Victorian times who built the infrastructure of our great cities, Labour local councils at their best have been a movement for social justice.
After all, council leaders are the only politicians who can be asked questions, on any area of their responsibility, every month, by any member of the public in our council chambers. You can’t be a political robot when that happens. And in my experience, local people can have much more subtle and engaging conversations with their local politicians about what’s right for their area than they could dream of having with a national government.
Since 2010 Labour councils have used our creativity and experience to find innovative ways to best defend those we were elected to protect – a task that has given Labour councils no pleasure, but in which they should rightly take pride. Labour councils like Nottingham have set up energy companies to challenge the ‘big six’ energy giants. Labour councils are straining every sinew to find was to deliver new council housing, despite a complete absence of government support. If Labour councils can achieve so much despite the constraints of austerity, can you imagine what we could do with the funding and freedom to deliver for their communities?
In a new publication from the Local Government Association (LGA) Labour Group which sets out what the next Labour government should do ‘On Day One’, we celebrate the work that Labour councils up and down the country have done despite the relentless attack on their budgets, and set out how the next Labour government will need to work with councils if it wants to deliver immediate and visible change ‘for the many, not the few’.
An immediate priority for the next Labour government must of course be to reverse the damage wrought by austerity – council budgets are now so tight that there is no room to cope with the extra pressures which we know are coming. The LGA has clearly set out the size of the funding gap in local government – there is already a shortfall of over £7billion by 2020. Labour must urgently commit to meeting this desperately-needed investment, but local councils don’t just need more funding: we need more freedoms too. The freedoms to meet what our citizens demand – new homes, new schools, a children’s centre in every community.
Localism makes sense in terms of delivering efficient and improved public services, but there is a powerful political argument too. I don’t pretend that giving more power and freedom to councils and local communities would be a magical panacea that would restore faith in the political system at a stroke, but the public have always placed significantly more trust in their local council than in the national government.
Many communities in our country expressed how they have felt a loss of identity, and an impression that they no longer have control over their own lives.
We need to respond to that fear with hope. Councils cannot rely on the old delivery models, but re-invent themselves, empowering social movements to deliver real change in their communities. The next Labour government should make this happen On Day One.
Cllr Nick Forbes is the Leader of Labour in Local Government