Waltham Forest Labour and democratic debate in the neighbourhoods

Some years ago, the average resident of Cann Hall (where I live) who aspired to have a say in how the neighbourhood developed could do so via the local ward forum, and also the Leytonstone Community Council (which embraced Cathall and Leytonstone wards, as well).

Both bodies had official status, were serviced by LBWF officers, and received finance from the Town Hall to support modest measures of amelioration. But, crucially, they were also independently chaired, and not in thrall to councillors; had agendas which were determined bi-laterally (i.e. fashioned by the chair, vice-chair, and officers); offered plenty of opportunity for residents with particular concerns to raise them; and controlled how their budgets were spent, with an annual round of suggested projects being voted upon by the floor.

Nowadays, the situation is very different. Community Councils are long gone. And the ward forum is changed out of all recognition. Councillors chair the meetings, determine the agenda, and decide between themselves how the budget is to be spent. The item ‘Any Other Business/Community Discussion’ still exists on paper, but in reality is often squeezed, even bumped altogether.

The impression given is that these are essentially political meetings, not democratic gatherings of equals. The councillors pontificate, explaining at length what they think of each issue, while the residents by and large are expected to look grateful. Anything potentially awkward or controversial – particularly if it relates to finance – is avoided like the plague. History has been erased. The general assumption is that life started at the last local election.

These developments illuminate a curious paradox. Labour rarely has been stronger, both in Cann Hall specifically and Waltham Forest more generally. Yet as the party has grown in size and power, so has it become less and less amenable to democratic argument and participation.

Part of the explanation for this is that most councillors are themselves marginalised, victims of the fact that important decisions are taken by a small inner circle. But it is also true that Labour in Waltham Forest too often has come to see popular politics as principally about the exertion of control. The world is viewed as a very inhospitable place. ‘Consumerism’, UKIP, racism, ‘fascism’, the evil Tories and a host of other temptations are ever-present. The right-wing media endlessly misleads. For their own good, it is concluded, the people must be guided.

What the Cobynista influx will make of all this is anyone’s guess. However, it will certainly be another litmus test. Will local Labour regain its appetite for substantive debate? Or will it continue as before?

My assessment? Don’t hold your breath. But I’m always ready to be proved wrong…

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