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Momentum needs a strategy to win power in local elections

A radical democratic politics requires focus at the local as well as national level, write Gabriel Bristow and Simon Thorpe

October 9, 2016
7 min read

This article is taken from the current issue of Red Pepper, produced in partnership with The World Transformed – get a subscription now.

paintingThe popularity of the Vote Leave campaign’s slogan ‘Take back control’ reveals a constitutional crisis at the heart of England’s failing democracy. ‘Take back control’ speaks of a profound disenfranchisement, of people who have had their representative institutions systematically crushed or hollowed out for a generation: trade unions, political parties and, as we will focus on here, local government. This abstract desire to ‘take back control’ should be seized upon and given form through a strategy to democratise and empower local government. This could begin with Momentum and its allies using upcoming local elections to take and redistribute local power, and to start experimenting with new ways of doing politics.

Local government matters. And yet, as a symptom of the fact that Britain is one of the most centralised countries in the world, political animals of all stripes often ignore it. Councils are considered politically impotent, having had their tax-raising powers stripped to a minimum and their budgets cut by up to 40 per cent under successive Conservative-led governments since 2010. The latest round of devolutionary deals to English cities and regions (heavily promoted by George Osborne but with much less support from his successor) is viewed by some on the left through this same prism: a Conservative ploy that sought to shift the blame for government-led austerity onto the devolved powers. But local government does offer opportunities, and examples abound.

One powerful example is Independents for Frome (see Red Pepper Dec/Jan 2015), who immediately took advantage of 2011’s Localism Act by taking over Frome town council as a democratic alliance of independent candidates. They reversed the old Tory council’s austerity programme by borrowing to fund regeneration and refurbishment of town buildings, and to set up community resources such as the new food bank, credit union and electric car club. This innovative approach is already being imitated in other English municipalities, and its popularity was confirmed with the group’s re-election in 2015, with its candidates taking all 17 council seats.

Further afield, a municipal revolution is currently underway in Spain. Since 2014, the 15M movement has established municipal electoral alliances in all of Spain’s major cities, with Madrid, Barcelona and Zaragoza now being governed by such groups. Their programmes include the radical ‘feminisation of politics’ – putting violence against women and the feminisation of poverty at the core of their efforts – as well as innovative methods of mass democratic participation and the municipalisation of energy and water services.

We can also look back to the 1980s for inspiration, when left-wing Labour councils took control of London, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester and showed what powerful metropolitan authorities could achieve. Under Ken Livingstone the Greater London Council pursued a radical socialist agenda, drastically cutting the cost of public transport, introducing equal employment opportunities in partnership with councils across London, running participatory town planning for the first time, and much more besides. In 1986, the GLC and six metropolitan county councils were abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s government – itself testimony to the importance of this period of experimentation in municipal socialism.

In 2017 and 2018, a number of important local elections will be held across the UK, including 12 directly elected mayors in England (10 of which are new posts), 35 English councils, all 32 Scottish councils, all 22 Welsh councils and all 32 London boroughs. We must take inspiration from successful municipalist movements past, present and abroad, and seize these local elections as opportunities: to build a base of activists that can win elections, prove that the current Labour Party is electable, build progressive alliances, and select left candidates who can begin making serious social change – first locally, then nationally. Let’s take each one of these in turn.

One element of winning elections is having a large, mobilised group of activists willing to go out canvassing their local areas for the party. With the Labour Party now the biggest social democratic party in western Europe, with well over 500,000 members, building such an activist base will be essential to any future electoral success. These upcoming local elections are the perfect chance to energise new and old members. If organised well – with the right balance of gravity, playfulness, camaraderie, realism and hope –we could both win power locally, and prepare the party to win a general election in 2020.

Much ink has been spilled over Jeremy Corbyn’s electability. Those defending him have often cited the growth in membership – and the eventual transformation of Labour into a mass social movement – as an effective supplement to having a slick media operation and friendly media outlets. These local elections are the first opportunity to test this proposition – to change the terms of electability, overcoming negative media onslaughts through sheer volume and quality of peer-to-peer political interaction.

A third opportunity is the chance to begin forming progressive alliances among parties. It is highly unlikely that Labour can win by itself in 2020 under any leader, especially after the present government gerrymanders the constituency borders. Our only chance to defeat the Tories may be to follow calls from Caroline Lucas and Neal Lawson to form a progressive alliance between Labour, Greens, Plaid, and possibly the Lib Dems and SNP. This strategy could begin in local elections, where in some seats it could mean the difference between failure and decisive victory for the left.

If Momentum and its allies encouraged progressive parties to run collective open primaries to select the best candidate in each constituency, that would create democratic legitimacy around the winning candidates and give them a better chance of beating the Conservatives where they do not hold an absolute majority. Such a process has the potential to revitalise local democracy, raising voter turnout and engagement both during and after the elections.

Finally, Momentum must motivate a new generation of radicals to stand to be councillors – hard, unsalaried work, often squeezed around a day job. We should change the culture and support structures in local politics to make it more accessible and inspiring, so that a wider range of ordinary people partake in local democracy. New candidates could then stand on a democratic socialist platform, transforming councils into open institutions geared towards meaningful social change. The issues and policies focused on would depend on the local area and the powers at the local authority’s disposal, but empowering both frontline council workers and service users should be a priority across the country.

Combined authorities with directly elected mayors – such as Greater Manchester, Liverpool, the North East, and others – will have more power to set policy on transport, housing, healthcare and beyond. This opportunity should be taken, and a key demand should be to extend these limited devolved powers further to include control of tax raising and more. If devolution and local government more generally could be seized on, opened up to social movements and civil society, and empowered, we could see a blooming of socialist innovations spreading across the country from the bottom up.

The examples and opportunities highlighted here show how winning power locally can create real change. They highlight the need for Momentum and its allies to develop strategies for winning local elections, both as a means of building towards the general election in 2020 and as a vehicle for social change in and of itself.

It may have become a cliché, but it doesn’t make it any less true: Westminster is politically bankrupt. Its legitimacy is hollow, cracked, and in need of profound democratic renewal. But a radical democratic politics requires new institutions too – hence the need for a municipal strategy as well as a national one.

Image: ‘Ankara’ by Stephen Nultey, exhibited at The World Transformed.