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Matthew Hancock, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, supported him in adding “We will take steps to stop such outdated policies being pursued through procurement and pension policies.”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.