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Matthew Hancock, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, supported him in adding “We will take steps to stop such outdated policies being pursued through procurement and pension policies.”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

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry


120