Resist Tory attacks on local councils

Campaigns Against Arms Trade highlight how new Tory policy could prohibit local Councils from implementing democratically voted upon motions in support of the BDS movement

October 13, 2015
5 min read

Much of the focus on the last few weeks has been on the political party conferences, with endless slights against Jeremy Corbyn and long-term speculation about who will be the successor to David Cameron. With personal politics dominating the news pages, one point that has largely slipped through the net is the government’s latest attempt to override local democracy by shutting down debate on investment in the arms trade and support for Israel.

The government may talk about its support for local decision making and devolution, but, on the opening day of the Conservative Party conference, the Communities Secretary Greg Clark announced new measures that if enacted will stop councils from supporting “politically motivated boycotts and divestment campaigns.”

In justifying what is clearly an attack on free speech the minister stressed that “Divisive policies undermine good community relations, and harm the economic security of families by pushing up council tax.” His fellow minister, Matthew Hancock, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, supported him in adding “We will take steps to stop such outdated policies being pursued through procurement and pension policies.”

Of course, despite the alarmist rhetoric, there is no evidence to suggest that councils that support boycotts of any kind have either pushed up their council tax or seen any measurable increase in community tensions. There are also a number of economists that have found ethical investment policies to do just as well if not better. Regardless, the reason for these measure is nothing to do with concerns about council tax or a desire to increase community cohesion. It is about politics and shutting down dissent, as became apparent in the Conservative Party press release that announced the boycott.

Under the ridiculous sub-heading Dangerous Consequences of Hard Left Policies , we are told that “The campaign against British defence companies risk harming Britain’s export trade.” In other words, central government regards arms company profits to be more important than the rights of local people to have a say in what their councils invest in. Recent polling from Opinium has found that 70% of UK adults oppose arms sales to human rights abusers, and yet hundreds of millions of pounds of public money is put into supporting companies that arm some of the worst dictatorships.

That is why there are campaigns all across the country calling for councils to disinvest from arms companies and those that fuel conflict. A lot of organisations, including Campaign Against Arms Trade, believe that public money should be used for the public good and that it shouldn’t go to companies which profit from war.

Similarly, the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement against the Israeli occupation (BDS) has grown over recent years, with a number of councils signing up to support citizen-led campaigns. Last November Leicester City Council passed a motion to boycott all goods produced in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Similarly, this year Nottingham City Council debated a boycott, in the end resolving to consider the issue further and work with local campaigners. There are also four councils in Scotland that have joined the boycott.

There is one sense in which Matthew Hancock is correct, local authority boycott campaigns are certainly nothing new, but this is no bad thing. Throughout the 1960s/70s over 100 local authorities decided to ban South African goods from their offices and schools. One estimate suggests that two thirds of the population lived in local authorities that supported the anti-Apartheid movement.

In 1981 Strathclyde went one step further, by announcing an end to pension fund investments from companies with South African subsidiaries and banning South African sports teams from its playing fields. It was soon joined by Cambridge, Newcastle and Glasgow and most inner London boroughs. The Conservative party may have had a very dubious and inglorious record when it came to apartheid, but presumably Hancock wouldn’t argue that any of these councils were out of touch with the public or on the wrong side of history? Presumably he wouldn’t suggest that it resulted in higher taxes or a breakdown in communities?

At present the rhetoric may be limited to baseless scaremongering about the impact of Israeli boycotts and disinvestment in arms companies, but in the long run these proposals could affect almost all campaign groups. If we are to accept the premise that Whitehall can ban councils from investment in one sector then how long will it be before similar attacks are made on environmental groups calling for disinvestment from fossil fuels? What about health charities that call for an end to investment in tobacco? If the principle is accepted then it will reduce the abilities for local people and campaign groups to create change on their own doorstep. This is why we need a broad movement against what amounts to an assault on local democracy.

Councils are meant to represent the interests of local people and to respond to their needs. Government ministers are forever telling us about the importance of ‘localism.’ Surely, if they really believes in empowering councils and promoting local decision making, then they should also allow councils to decide where their money is invested?

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill


120