One of Britain’s biggest trade unions has waded into a bitter Labour row over radical plans to give party members the right to elect local council leaders.
Blogging for HuffPost, the GMB’s Tom Warnett backs the idea of subjecting town hall chiefs – many of whom are from the ‘moderate’ wing of the party - to a ballot of local members and trade unionists.
The plans are being considered as part of Labour’s internal ‘Democracy Review’, the findings of which are due to be published before the annual conference in September.
Backers of the idea say it will create more ‘Corbyn councils’, like Haringey in London, that better reflect the priorities of pro-Jeremy Corbyn party members who have joined since he became leader in 2015.
But the proposal has been fiercely opposed by the party’s local government bosses, who prefer the current system that allows council group leaders to be chosen only by fellow councillors.
Nick Forbes, who leads Newcastle City Council and sits on the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC), warned on Wednesday that the proposal would be “unworkable”, expensive, possibly illegal and guaranteed to spark “endless infighting”.
The ‘Democracy Review’, which is also expected to reduce the role of MPs in nominating future Labour leaders, is due to be published later this summer by Corbyn’s former political secretary Katy Clark.
Warnett, the GMB’s political officer and its lead local government official, said that it was time to give party members a real say over who runs their local borough.
“Every senior position in the Labour Party is elected. Except in local government,” he said. “There is no mechanism for members to have a say on who should be the Labour group leader or to debate the principles, priorities and policies they will lead before they are in place.
“This is not a witch hunt. This is about accountability to our movement, to our values and to people having a say over Labour’s leadership in our communities.”
Momentum founder Jon Lansman declared this week that the influx of Corbyn supporters in the party membership was irreversible and would slowly see more left-backed councillors selected and elected.
He has backed some of the latest calls for a greater grass roots say.
Warnett quoted one local member saying: ‘voted for Jeremy to be Labour leader, but the council make so many decisions about our lives, why don’t we have a say in who leads that? We don’t even get asked’.
He also rounded on ‘union-busting’ Labour councils like Barking and Dagenham, and others that privatise services “without a second thought”.
Attacking the current system whereby councillors chose their group leader “behind closed doors”, the GMB official added that the lack of transparency leads to cliques and patronage.
“Too often we see Council Cabinet members dependent on the grace and patronage of their leader for their income and livelihood - no Cabinet position means no job, and as such very little dissent,” he writes.
“In some places even scrutiny chairs – the name should give away what they’re there for – are put in place by the very leadership they are supposed to scrutinise.”
Under one version of the proposal, council leaders could be elected by an electoral college made up of party members and trade unionists, with some consultation of local councillors as part of the process.
Leftwingers are keen to extend the influence of Corbyn-supporting grassroots in local councils, but apart from Haringey and parts of Manchester, attempts to deselect ‘centrist’ town hall leaders have not materialised.
Corbyn’s spokesman stressed that no firm conclusions had been agreed in the Democracy Review, which closes for submissions on Friday this week.
However, he pointed out that the Labour leader had a long record in seeking greater democracy within the party.
Critics of the proposals say that it would be open to legal challenge as council leaders have to be chosen by their fellow councillors.
Others say that organising local postal or even online ballots for party members would be hugely expensive to organise.