The Corbynistas and local government in Waltham Forest

I hear from a number of sources that, as Corbynistas increasingly dominate the local Labour Party, thoughts are turning not just to the de-selection of one or more local MPs, but also to the de-selection of councillors.

Whether any such thing will happen is a moot point. There are certainly some on the Labour benches who have contributed little or nothing, and richly deserve to be replaced. But the Left’s fixation with ideology (and penchant for allied witch-hunting) makes it inherently disputatious, and subject to often vicious arguments – a characteristic that has historically limited its ability to get anything much done. It is quite easy to envisage a scenario where the ranting yet largely incompetent predators are outfoxed by their wily prey.

However, let us imagine for a moment that the Corbynistas achieve a council dominated by their own. What will happen next?

The omens are not good. All councils are tightly constrained nowadays, with little room for experimentation. In addition, the Left’s track record in local government does not exactly inspire confidence. Indicatively, some of those who are now most vocal about the need for principle in politics were only yesterday praising Lutfur Rahman’s administration in Tower Hamlets!

So it is quite possible that, when push comes to shove, what transpires is an outbreak of gesture politics – the Palestinian flag flying over the Town Hall and so on – plus a few policies designed to appease the voices of the politically correct middle-classes, and little else.

One unsavory and out of touch cabal will have been replaced by another.

But let’s give the Corbynistas the benefit of the doubt, and assume they really do want to fashion a new politics in the borough. What does that mean in practice? Up to now little seems to have been said on this subject, so to get the ball rolling, here is my own none-too-sophisticated list of actions that are a must:

1.Decentralise Town Hall decision-making

The current ‘strong leader’ system concentrates power, encourages patronage, and marginalises those members outside the Cabinet. Get rid of it, and re-introduce the committee system. This will engage almost every councillor rather than a few, spread responsibility, purposefully integrate the opposition, and result in issues being debated on their merits, not on partisan instructions from above.*

2. Actively discourage organised Town Hall factions based upon religion or ethnicity

Obviously necessary for the sake of openness and transparency, but not what goes on now.

3. Reinforce scrutiny

The committee structure will help here, but the importance of scrutiny also needs to be underlined to officers of all grades. The scrutiny investigation of Worknet (see link below) was torpedoed partly because officers dodged attending to answer questions. That is unacceptable.

4. Pledge to make senior appointments fairly and on merit

Banish the days when a single candidate, favoured by the ruling party, could show up for a job interview and be appointed. Rigorously act against cronyism and the old pals’ act.

5. Make councillors reveal more about themselves

We need to know more about councillors’ affiliations and sources of income and wealth, so that we can be sure that they are working for us, not someone else. Why, for example, shouldn’t councillors tell us (as they once did) the outside bodies that they are members, or supporters, of?

6. Move away from spin and PR, and actively cultivate transparency

In the last ten years the council has become wedded to spin. There is now a relentless concentration on ‘good news’ – whether merited or not – and a refusal to acknowledge mistakes. The impact on the ground? Too often, a weary cynicism: ‘we’ve heard it all before’. Honest communication is not only right in itself, but can help create the kind of fruitful partnerships – for instance between the Council and the third sector – which will benefit us all.

7. Get rid of WFM and use the local paper for statutory announcements

Follows from 6. And NB good local papers – independent and inquisitive, on-line or in print – remain an essential component of a healthy local democracy.

8. Return ward forums to their original purpose

I’ve written previously about the unwelcome transformation of ward forums and their increasing domination by councillors (see link below). Reverse the trend completely. In other words, return ward forums to their original purpose – a place where citizens and their elected representatives meet together as equals to discuss local issues.

9. Terminate the E11 BID Co.

The E11 BID Co. symbolises everything that is wrong with LBWF’s recent trajectory – a private ‘business’ body, feted by the great and good, that is showered with public money, but is then revealed to be chaotically run, remise about paying its taxes, and apparently incapable of convincingly explaining what it has achieved. Bin it.

10. Actively address poverty

The local Left has a propensity to drone on about inequality, but when it comes to practical measures which address poverty, its silence tends to be deafening. The consequences are there for all to see. Take South Leytonstone. In the last few years, LBWF has decimated the Children’s Centre, closed the associated food bank, and shut our branch library, with barely a squeak of opposition from either the Labour branch or our Labour councillors. Meanwhile, large sums of council money continue to be frittered away on a series of pointless ‘festivals’ and firework displays. Those spending priorities need to be exactly reversed.

The bottom line, in my view, is that Labour needs to return to the values that helped it gain control of London boroughs in the first place – primarily, a concern with probity in all matters of process; a commitment to advancing democracy, and therefore behaving honestly and openly; and a determination to actively help the less well off.

It will be interesting to see how the Corbynistas measure up. Will they be brave enough to grasp the nettle?

Related Posts

Documenting Past Failures: (10) LBWF and Worknet: a tale of underperformance, failure, and the betrayal of local people

Waltham Forest Labour and democratic debate in the neighbourhoods