Local councils, love and loathing – a life story

From 80s municipal socialism to the Blairite ‘regeneration game’ and beyond – a tale of hopes betrayed, and dreams that still need to be fulfilled.

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Caroline Molloy
5 July 2017

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Image: Caroline, Suzy, Costas, Debra and Neil, leaving school in Haringey in 1989.

From Kensington council’s disastrous handling of the Grenfell tower tragedy, to the Haringey councillors the Guardian this week dubbed ‘Zombie Blairites’ for exemplifying how right-wing Labour councillors have also jumped on the social cleansing bandwagon, councils are big news for the first time in years. This week Haringey Council approved the largest council house demolition-cum-privatisation in history, demolishing estates in deprived Tottenham with no real guarantees residents will be allowed to return to the newly ‘regenerated’ area, as part of a £2bn partnership with private firm Lendlease.

All of this news has set me to reflecting on councils – the councils of my childhood, and my adulthood - and asking, where did it all go wrong? And amidst a resurgence of left-wing politics, is there a future for municipal socialism once more?

At my Haringey infant school, I was surrounded by a familiar media moral panic about the ‘far left’ – not Momentum and ‘Marxists’ back then, but their 80s incarnation, the so-called ‘loony left’. I was supposedly one of those small children banned from singing ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’, indoctrinated with copies of ‘Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin’, and not allowed to put rubbish in black bin bags.

Us kids didn’t have the term fake news back then, of course. Just wondered why the grown-ups were talking such nonsense.

From my child’s-eye perspective that ‘loony left’ Haringey council was doing a lot of amazing stuff, and shielding us from the worst excesses of Thatcherism. It let me go on a week’s holiday to an adventure centre in Wales, for the princely sum of five pounds (as I was getting free school meals). Its local swimming pool was affordable and had four pools. The local park had a paddling pool and a park keeper and all kinds of free games you could borrow. The local library was a wonderful temple to books (though I did have to make a special request to borrow the Enid Blytons that were begrudgingly stashed in the archives). We still got our school free milk – despite Thatcher. We had the best firework display in London (amidst the “ooohs”, my mum said “This is what I pay my rates for”. “What are rates?” I asked).

My teachers taught us about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, about the miners’ strike, about the truth of imperialism, that just because you read something in a book, doesn’t mean it’s true. They made sure we could spell and do our times tables too, without much fussing over ‘test results’.

Fast forward a few short years and Labour councils were running scared of the ‘loony left’ tag – and turning to a very different politics. In the process, they underwent a process of reinvention and ‘regeneration’ that has seen its culmination in the kind of social cleansing highlighted in Haringey’s ‘Development Vehicle’ scandal this week.

Even as I joined the Labour Party at 15, I was disillusioned about the way the party was reacting to council cuts. I remember watching the Labour Party conference in 1985 (l was a weird kid) and thinking that whilst Derek Hatton was clearly a toe-rag, there was something about the way the media were unanimously gloating about his clash with Kinnock as an unalloyed triumph over lunacy, that didn’t sit quite right with me (memories of the Baa Baa Black Sheep story, maybe?).

In Haringey, as across London, things did get a bit weird quite quickly. My after-school club was scrapped when the GLC was dismantled. The squats I used to play in on Tottenham Lane were pulled down. The council houses started being sold. My friends came to school the day after the Tottenham riots, with tales of having to tape up their letterboxes. My secondary school – that they couldn’t easily redevelop into housing because it was a listed building – burned down (it’s houses now). The teachers started to bite their tongues before they talked about politics (the national curriculum was on its way in, along with SATs and league tables). Just before we took our GCSEs, the new results-oriented head of year chucked out a bunch of my classmates – mostly black boys. Shortly afterwards I turned up for work experience at Haringey Council. They got me checking whether the signatures on the housing benefit giros looked forged or not. (It’s a dirty job….)

Like most of London, not just Kensington & Chelsea, Haringey was always a borough of extremes – stretching from Millionaires Row in Highgate to some of the most deprived wards in the country in Tottenham. But there’s no question that London’s housing bubble has worsened the problem.

I moved out of Haringey a long time ago – the last time I was in a council building there was probably my mum’s remarriage in Wood Green Civic Centre – and like many of my cohort, private rented my way through shabbier inner London boroughs, priced out as those areas gentrified themselves, repeating the experience in outer boroughs. And then eventually, somewhat reluctantly, out of London altogether, fed up with the options of renting a pokey buy-to-let cladded cliché above a Tesco Express next to thunderous traffic, or keeping a low profile in a peaceful but shabby converted house or ex-council flat, not daring to ask the landlord for much needed repairs for fear he’d put the rent up or remember to sell his half-forgotten ‘investment’.

And we were the lucky ones. For six years I was a housing officer in Islington and Hackney, and saw first-hand the social tenants who were being driven into stressful rent arrears and in some cases eviction by the utter incompetence of the privatised housing benefit management that both councils had signed up to. The tenants who were labelled and hounded with the newly fashionable term ‘anti-social behaviour’ because their kids no longer had anywhere safe to play and hang out - though no-one accused the 4x4 drivers zooming dangerously through their communities of ‘anti-social behaviour’. The tenants who were being ‘decanted’ from tower blocks in the areas they’d lived in all their lives, some admittedly to beautiful riverside low rises – but plenty more out to Stevenage and beyond. And that was even before tenants had to deal with the bedroom tax, the benefits cap, and ever more penurious benefits systems and housing law.

But I always kept an eye on Haringey. I kept in touch with friends fighting developments like Tottenham’s Wards Corner. I remember my dismay when I heard that my childhood book temple had been quasi-privatised – a move that prefigured the full scale privatisation afoot for the borough’s main library now.

I remember the powerlessness I felt when I heard Tottenham kids – quite possibly the children of my old classmates – telling the TV news that their youth clubs had all been cut, and that there would be riots. And when only months later, the riots did indeed kick off, local kids were back on the news saying ‘maybe we’ll get a new swimming pool at least, that’s what we got when the riots happened last time’. You can’t blame them.

Of course, not all of this is the fault of local councils themselves. Over the years I’ve met many councillors – Labour, Lib Dem, Green, even a few Tories – who were good people with a genuine sense of civic duty, trying to do their best for their constituencies. I’ve even – briefly – been a councillor myself. And I know it’s not an easy task. Part of the problem is the time it takes (particularly in the era of deliberately impenetrable contracting-out arrangements) for little reward. This means that - apart from those who see it as a stepping stone to a parliamentary career - the job is more often done by retired people, well-meaning but not necessarily au fait with the difficulties faced by successive generations.

But my own stint as a councillor is also where I realised that somewhere along the line, too many Labour councillors had stopped seeing local residents needing services as potential allies, and started seeing them as feckless scroungers to be gate-kept and dehumanised. They had bought into the myths of ‘localism’ and the flattery that they could run things better than Whitehall, even as the reality was money and power given to unaccountable corporate ‘partners’. Their self-aggrandisement was left largely unchallenged, thanks to a dying local press no longer sending reporters to most council meetings, and by a national media uninterested, until very recently at least, in things like housing and social care.

These bad habits were developed long before the 2008 financial crisis really made things tough. In the Blair years, being tough on services used mostly by poorer women and children became something of a macho rite of passage for ambitious New Labour councillors. The process was smoothed over by an increasing reliance on ‘consultants’, who were feted as sages then hidden behind when things went wrong. The adoption of cabinet council structures and mayors disempowered ordinary backbench councillors, whilst the adoption of top-down executive-style party organisation disempowered ordinary Labour party members. Councils’ scrutiny powers were watered down by successive central governments – and councillors appeared strangely reluctant to use those they were left with. Their leaders sat on unaccountable undemocratic regeneration structures – a plethora of ‘local enterprise zones’ and ‘local economic partnerships’ and the like.

Along with the kissing up, went the kicking down. Trade unions who protested against cuts and outsourcing were ignored. Community campaigners and minority groups were co-opted as volunteers and ‘community leaders’ where possible – or else treated with hostility and labelled as ‘troublemakers’ and ‘Trots’.

In Waltham Forest – where I lived for 10 years – I saw the Labour council try to outsource school management to G4S – who suggested their experience of running prisons could be useful in terms of keeping the local youth in line – before giving up amidst controversy, and settling on giving the running of schools to a warship manufacturer instead. I went to ‘consultation’ meetings run by ‘consultation and regeneration consultants’ who had glossy leaflets and smiles but no answers for local residents angry about proposals to build a school with a 'landmark' tower block on top of it, on a flood plain (I kid you not). I saw scandal after scandal unfold around the fraudulent mis-use of regeneration money intended to help the poorest communities in a poor borough, whilst the council’s main priority seemed to be a war on chicken shops.

I saw the Labour-run council destroy or lose half the boroughs’ library books in their rush to ‘regenerate’ library buildings – a feat they justified by claiming (somewhat dubiously) that they didn’t burn the books, just pulp them. When I tentatively asked the council leader if surely the decision to close our local branch library shouldn’t have been taken in a publicly minuted meeting, not just snuck through undebated in the budget and accepted as ‘the direction of travel’, he leaned over the table and shouted at me, “Don’t you tell me how to run a council, I’ve been running a council for years!”.

I might have studied how politics is supposed to work at one of the top universities in the world, but I learned a lot more about how it really worked, that day.

Nostalgia for the Thatcher era is a funny thing – but at least back in those days we knew that Labour councils were mostly trying to be on our side. Not an insignificant thing. I remember seeing the Haringey star logo everywhere (the logo they’ve recently junked for something more appealing to private investors) and knowing I was home, safe, secure.

I make no grand claims to explain the entirety of the withering of local democracy, which undoubtedly has many factors. There were times as a councillor, listening to my colleagues’ self-congratulation about how well they were ‘representing their constituents’, just before voting through massive rent hikes for social tenants without any real discussion, when I wondered whether ‘representative’, ie electoral, democracy itself was inherently flawed, and the only alternative an autonomist utopia of self-organised direct democracy. That’s a bit hard to envisage – perhaps I’m suffering from what Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’ – but it’s certainly true that autonomists organising in communities have sometimes been local people’s only effective allies in defending themselves against the cruelty of local public and private bureaucracies, for example in anti-eviction defence direct actions. And that party loyalties and tribalism – as much as bureaucracy – sometimes seem to mitigate against honesty, speaking truth to power, and (just as important) confessing our mistakes.

It remains to be seen whether Jeremy Corbyn will use his new-found authority to deal with some of the excesses of his right-wing councils, who are proving to be almost as much of an embarrassment to the Labour Party, as Kensington and Chelsea have been to the Tories, and certainly as much as the ‘loony left’ ever were. And whether left wing Labour party members new and old will gather the skills and courage to speak out as strongly as they need to.

At last year’s Labour party conference, even as the left celebrated Corbyn’s re-election, its right wing mobilised a succession of rule changes that not only packed the ruling NEC with right wingers but banned Labour councillors from signing off ‘no cuts budgets’. Despite popular perception, it’s been a very long time since councillors faced jail for passing a ‘no cuts budget’, that old left demand – but, if this rule isn’t changed, they do now face expulsion from the Labour party. The rule change was reportedly to ease pressure on right wing labour councillors who might otherwise be facing threats of deselection for their implementation of cuts.

Both left and right of the Labour party are currently trying to mobilise members to back rule changes that could – on the one hand, democratise internal party structures and make it easier to hold councillors to account and even deselect them if necessary – and on the other hand, load the party’s governing body, the NEC, with existing councillors from the right of the party, and undermine attempts to drag its existing policy and structures leftwards.

But whether inside or outside the Labour party, perhaps now is a good time for us all to think about who ought to be holding councils and councillors to account, and how we really want to see power and decision making distributed in our communities. If we don’t, we’ll probably end up with a takeover by more of the government appointed taskforces of the kind Said Javid announced today.

While this might seem like a technical debate to some, I can't help but think of the children in schools in around the country today, about their insecure homes and their emptied libraries and their shabby parks, and suspect that these debates aren't so much about the future of the Labour party, or of local democracy, but of the kids they are supposed to be there for.

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