Every senior position in the Labour Party is elected. Except in local government. If Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister, he will first have been elected by hundreds of thousands of Labour and trade union members. Labour Mayors of Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, London, Salford, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Lewisham, Doncaster, Leicester, Middlesbrough, North Tyneside, Newham and South Yorkshire were selected by the Labour movement before being elected to their posts by the public.
Conversely, a council leader who oversees a large budget and thousands of local government workers, is only selected by the party members who live in their individual ward to be a candidate for councillor, from there a vote of councillor colleagues takes place behind closed doors. 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. In practice, there is no recourse for members if the leader chooses to act in a way that undermines the values our party is founded upon - other than to deselect them as a candidate to be councillor when they are next up for election, which may be four years away.
At GMB, this was brought into sharp focus when a local government member - working on an outsourced council contract – said at a meeting last year “I 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.” That member was right. We can’t justify the current process in any common sense way.
There are some fantastic and innovative local government leaders. In Liverpool, an insourcing agenda has seen services put back into public hands while saving millions; in Nottingham, Robin Hood Energy is showing that a public sector energy company can tackle fuel poverty at the same time as being commercially successful, with a growing workforce GMB is proud to represent; in Birmingham, the council is working collaboratively with unions to limit the impact of cuts; and Islington still leads the way on free school meals.
Local government leaders are up against it as funding cuts and continued austerity see budgets slashed. In many areas, GMB has a productive and positive relationship with Labour council leaders. We are friends, colleagues and a mutual support working with shared aims, objectives and values. But unfortunately it is not always the case.
In Barking, we see union busting and continuous attacks on the pay, terms and conditions of local government workers. In so many other areas we see housing sold off and services put out to the private sector without a second thought.
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. 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.
We are a democratic Party, where all sections of our movement have a say in how we are governed and how we enact our values. Those local government leaders who live by Labour values will have nothing to fear and will get the full support of Labour and trade union members. 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.
Tom Warnett is a political officer at GMB