When Labour is out of power nationally, we should look to regional and local government for the answers. Labour councils are leading the fight against coronavirus. But even before the pandemic, throughout the Labour party’s history, Labour councils pioneered the radical policies that we continue to be proud of today.
Before the creation of the NHS, in the early 20th century, local authorities had stepped in to run hospitals. At the end of the second world war, the Labour-run London County council ran the largest public service of its kind dedicated to healthcare.
Before nationalised energy companies, the Labour-run metropolitan borough of Shoreditch, which later became part of my own borough, Hackney Council, generated electricity for our residents by burning waste. Waste heat from the process was used to heat the public baths next door to the generator.
And now, during the coronavirus crisis, it is councils that are leading local responses to keep people safe. Local public health officers are coordinating services in their areas, liaising with local GPs and trusts to assess need and helping protect other council staff on the frontline of public service. They are creating local volunteering hubs to help those self-isolating, coordinating with local retailers and foodbanks to get food to those most in need, and have been standing up for their businesses and workers where the government has failed to act.
Labour in local government has continued to show the radical change that Labour ideals can bring when put into action. Labour’s defeat in the general election does not mean we should give up on implementing our ideas. The truth is that time and time again, Labour, where it is in power – through the Welsh Labour government, our regional mayors, and Labour in in local government – is still delivering real change.
In Hackney for example, we have returned to our roots with our new council-owned, sustainable energy company – Hackney Light and Power. Nottingham, Liverpool, Southampton, Islington and Bristol have also set up their own municipal energy companies.
On one of the biggest issues of our generation – the climate emergency – Labour local authorities are leading the way. By April this year, Hackney council will run on 100 per cent clean and green energy. Our town hall, council buildings, street lamps and some schools will run entirely on renewable energy.
Waltham Forest has intervened on air quality, reducing the number of households exposed to illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide from 60,000 to 6,000. Telford and Wrekin council has built 16,000 solar panels to provide power to up to 1,000 homes. Plymouth City council is developing a network of wildflower meadows and bee corridors in order to combat the declining bee population. And Labour councils across Greater Manchester have worked with the charity City of Trees to set a goal to plant three million street trees.
Labour councils are also tackling the housing challenge, building on the freedoms the last Labour government gave us to start developing social housing again. In this year alone, Hackney council will build 251 genuinely affordable council homes at social rent, living rent or shared ownership.
These, and many other radical examples of Labour councils transforming our country for the better demonstrate that not only can we take on some of our biggest challenges, but we can also be trusted to take care of taxpayers’ money.
Local government has arguably been the worst hit public service by Tory austerity. Tory cuts mean councils have lost 60p out of every £1 that the last Labour administration was spending on local government in 2010.
Labour councils could have followed the Tory vision for local government – delivering the very basic level of services on outsourced contracts – like the ‘easyCouncil’ model in Tory-run Barnet, which outsourced £300m worth of services. Services like council libraries were privatised and left unstaffed up to 80 per cent of the time. But over the past few years we have seen the problems this approach has caused.
Labour councils, in contrast, have been on the frontline in fighting austerity. We have been in-sourcing services and innovating, all while average council tax bills are £350 lower in Labour local authorities than in Conservative ones.
We need both radicalism and trust, that Labour councils are showing, if we are to regain ground nationally and win the next general election. So the Labour party needs to start taking us seriously. Just over 6,000 Labour councillors contribute more than £2m annually to the party via the councillor levy, and many millions of pounds more through donations to local campaigns.
Councillors are part of the campaigning backbone of this party and continue to win local seats where we lose nationally. And where we are in power, our councillors and mayors are on the frontline of fighting austerity – having to deal with difficult budgets thanks to Tory cuts while protecting their most vulnerable communities.
Labour councils are not the joint architects of austerity with the Tories: they are fighting to preserve services while their budgets are at breaking point. In 2020 let us acknowledge the work of Labour in local government, stand up for them in the fight ahead, and win through radicalism and trust.