Our representatives or managers of decline?

simon henig

Simon Henig is the leader of the Labour group on Durham County Council. He’s a pretty slick operator. After yesterday’s People’s Assembly protest at County Hall, where campaigners asked councillors to think again before voting through cuts that would further devastate communities and local services, he was quick with a prepared statement:

“The Government sets the general direction on spending and has been very clear since 2010 that they would make large public sector funding cuts. They set the level of funding that we receive and we have to operate within our budget. If we didn’t, it would not be a legal budget and decision-making would be taken away from local people and their elected representatives. The majority of savings we are making this year are coming from back office functions and we continue to try to safeguard frontline services as much as possible.”

Henig is fairly typical of a new breed of council leader, adept at deflecting blame. In a similar way to Nick Forbes at Newcastle, he comes across as a national politician playing a local game. You can imagine that if, for some inexplicable reason, he hadn’t made it to the top of the local tree, he would have given up a long time ago and become a very good business man or manager in a large corporation.

This is the post-Blair generation of local leader. It’s hard to fathom what their politics are. They say an awful lot about the Coalition Government. They seem to despise the Lib Dems for their “treachery”, but it’s not immediately apparent that this enmity has a political basis; rather it is the almost apolitical, akin to the tribal dislike of upstarts Manchester City by a “long standing” Manchester United fan. When you look at the modus operandi of Forbes, Henig and the like, they are actually very close to the Liberal Democrats, dutifully carrying out Tory cuts, telling everyone, whether they’re interested or not, that there is no alternative and engaging in the kind of doublespeak that says that you are safeguarding communities by cutting services.

Maybe we shouldn’t blame them. They are products of their society. They were brought up in the bosom of New Labour. Between 1997 and 2010, this was the way you behaved to get on in the party. Critics within the party were virtually non-existent and those on the outside could be dismissed easily as Trots or anarchists – certainly nothing to do with respectable, moderate Labour Party politics.  Nobody ever got on in New Labour by making a spectacle of themselves at a demonstration or hovering too close to a trade union banner. Activism was a probably always a bit of dirty word at this level of local politics. Apart from a few trade union activists, most councillors probably chose to stand, not as an extension of their political activism, but as responsible and respected members of their community.

At some point in this period, however, there emerged what you might call a more “aspirational councillor”. The aspiration was often transparently personal. Perhaps it was about laying a foundation for a political career, as an MP or a Special Advisor (SpAd). Maybe it was a strategically astute move for anyone who wanted to build a career for themselves in the myriad of quangos and organisations launched by the New Labour establishment. What it absolutely wasn’t about, however, was political conviction. That much is clear. These aspirational councillors were perfectly suited to the managerialism that dominated the local state from the early 1990s onwards. Politics would only intrude. Once they’d elevated themselves to a certain position within the council (via committee work, informal contacts and generally keeping their noses clean) the job then became about working closely with the paid and unelected officers – in particular the chief executives, who could offer advice and guidance on what would not be possible and what would be financially prudent.

However, the final piece of the jigsaw only came with the willing acceptance of their minor role by ordinary councillors, who deferred to the high flyers such as Forbes and Henig. It reminds me of that bit in ‘In the Loop’ where Simon realises that he was just “Meat in the Room”. So, essentially, the whole operation of the council (and our local democracy) becomes about what three or four powerful people think it should be. And as those people (to arrive in positions of power) have long given up an idea of political principles, what it becomes about is managing a corporation. In a time of austerity, it becomes about managing decline. If money is tight, you look at your margins, your labour costs, what is profitable and what is not (or “value for money” to use the public sector management jargon) and trim accordingly. These are what are commonly known as “tough choices”. Like some sort of sadomasochistic adrenalin junky, aspirational councillors feed off “tough choices”. It is how they earned their spurs in the corridors of power in the Civic Centre, County Hall or the Town Hall. More importantly, it is how they earned the respect of the chief executive.

To maintain power, the manager of decline must continue to persuade the ordinary councillor that these are the only choices. There aren’t any other “tough choices”, like setting an illegal budget, like increasing council tax above the threshold set by the government, like building community support for an alternative budget – all of these choices have to be kept beyond the remit of discussion, because they are not seen as real choices. They are helped in this by the fact that other councillors, though not aspirational in the same way, have still learnt their trade in an era marked by defeats – for the labour movement and for local democracy, helped by the dominance of New Labour. There are certainly a minority that have kept their links to local community groups, campaigns and trade unions, but they are overwhelmed by those councillors who see their roles in local, almost anti-political ways. In either case, almost all defer to the Cabinet and the leader.

Is the kind of local democracy we want? Can it, in fact, be called any kind of democracy at all? We vote, as local residents, for candidates who we expect to represent our communities first and foremost. Surely, to vote for cuts that take away a council-run leisure centre, a library or a public service for the vulnerable in that very community is a betrayal of that bargain – or at least merits an explanation better than the bland prescriptions given by Henig. They tell us that we are targeting the wrong people. Well, yes, as the People’s Assembly points out continuously, the ultimate blame lies fairly and squarely with the Coalition Government. We not only know this, but we are the ones out on the streets campaigning against that government almost every weekend – against the Bedroom Tax, tax avoidance by multinationals, workfare, zero hours contracts, the decimation of the NHS and the targeting of disabled people via ATOS. Rarely do we have a local councillor standing by our sides.

It is my view that the aspirational councillor – those “New Labour” councillors who have created a whole political class at a local level – all powerful, yet absolutely divorced from communities, have outlived their usefulness. They seemed all modern, in their shiny suits in the nineties and early noughties, but since the 2008 crash and the subsequent recession, they’re neither use nor ornament. They seem strangely antiquated in the changed circumstances we now live in, framed by austerity and the continuous fight to save our welfare state, our jobs and our communities. We need to reinvent what being a councillor means. Maybe we can reinvent an “activist councillor” to take the place of the aspirational councillor. Like the previous incarnation, perhaps the new breed of activist councillors could drag a few of the old guard (the swing voters if you like) along with them and turn them into half decent representatives of their community too. An activist councillor would be in amongst their community every day. They would fight tooth and nail for it. They would be on the side of the protestors rather than sneering at them as they passed them. They would organise protests, maybe even occupy stuff, but certainly be at the heart of community alliances and radical activity – in between the boring council business of course.  The activist councillor would be independent minded, would take their representative role seriously and be held accountable for every single decision they made. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But is it? If we want to save local democracy, to make people believe in it again, shouldn’t we be trying to change the culture which has created the Nick Forbes’ and Simon Henig’s of this world?

The alternative? Actually, it’s even more ridiculous – but it’s becoming a reality as we speak, right in front of our eyes. It’s effectively to give over the running of our local state to unelected officials – managers who will outsource its functions to private companies giving “value for money” until, well…there’s nothing left.


12 thoughts on “Our representatives or managers of decline?

  1. Caron Walker says:

    Hi Ben

    In general I would agree with your analysis. However, I take issue with your comment “those on the outside could be dismissed easily as Trots or anarchists – certainly nothing to do with respectable, moderate Labour Party politics.” I am one of those you describe yet have tirelessly fought for the past 35 years inside the Labour Party to be a voice for socialist policies and ideals. I was a Newcastle councillor in the 1980s (briefly) and was almost a lone voice on the council in arguing against cuts and for setting a deficit budget. I built strong links with local communities so much so that at last year’s May Day March a woman who was a classroom assistant in a local primary school in 1985 came up to me and said that it had always remained with her how I’d fought for their school.

    I would argue that the problem is precisely those “moderate Labour Party politics” caused the vacuum that the likes of Nick Forbes were able to fill with ease. Please don’t use “trots” as a term of insult and please respect that we all have a contribution to make. You might not agree with our analysis but ultimately, we are all fighting for socialism so don’t write me off as a mere “trot”.


    • Hi Caron. I’m afraid you’ve completely misunderstood my point, but I’m sorry that I wasn’t clear enough. I was saying that this was their attitude, not stating it as a fact at all. One of the things that New Labour did was to allow those “aspiring” members to paint all critics as “Trots” – as a derogatory term, obviously, but also so they didn’t have to answer questions as to what they were up to. Whether their critics were Trotskyist or not, that was wrong. I agree absolutely that the moderates, often masquerading behind some very dodgy rightwing views, were the problem, not the left activists, Trotskyist or otherwise.

  2. Carole Reeves says:

    I think we need an utterly radical approach. I hope the Scots vote for independence, then we can throw in our lot with them. At least there seems to be a majority for good public services and a publicly owned and run NHS there.

  3. Cllr. Ian Blackburn says:

    Quite a simple solution to it really. All the national spending, such as social care, education etc, return those responsibilities back to national government. Then let the Tories take the blame for spending cuts. They want the cuts, they take the responsibility for the outcomes. NO labour councillor goes to be elected to cut public services. Thatcher got local government to take responsibility for such issues, but then never gave enough money for them to be run. When the cuts were then made, it was local councillors who got the blame. Today it is no different. Good councillors are now taking the blame for cuts.

  4. David says:

    Great stuff, Ben. I think you’re right about a generation of “aspirational councillors” which has emerged in the Labour Party from the 1990s onwards. They are basically career politicians with good PR skills who prance about in suits and see politics very much as a business in which they can be successful.

    However, I don’t think they’re solely or even predominantly responsible for the lack of fight in the Labour Party at the moment, unfortunately. I think what we’re talking about are symptoms of a much deeper problem: a sterile, conservative Labourism which is technocratic, managerialist and paternalistic. Middlesbrough Council is the example par excellence, but I think all Labour councils in the North (and elsewhere) are the same to some extent. They are dominated by incredibly pompous men in their 50s and 60s with no interest in politics other than “rule-by-committee”. They adhere to the old Herbert Morrison maxim that “socialism is what a Labour government does”. But hasn’t this always been the dominant trend in the Labour Party? The difference, I suppose, was that the aforementioned layer often had greater roots in the labour movements and (via the old Party leadership) were more responsive to leftward shifts in public opinion.

  5. Derek says:

    Good comment Ben. I remember Ken Livingstone saying in the 1980’s that “being a councillor has been reduced to deciding what cuts to make”. Have things really changed much since?
    I was a Labour Party member for longer than I care to remember. In all that time I can say I rarely came across an example of an activist councillor – one who saw themselves as a campaigner and someone who wanted to build a team of activists around them. Instead they saw themselves as managers of the local economy. This is precisely what you describe Ben, but it’s not really anything new. In fact many of the people I knew, who went on to be councillors, then didn’t even bother to turn up regularly to their own Labour Party branch meetings
    I will agree that the cabinet style of Council does mean that decisions are made by a small hand picked group who bend their knee to the leader. It is also a new route for careerists.
    Alternative leaders in Councils, new strategies and links to activists would be welcome but this is not the real issue. The real problem is not those in the Council chamber, it is developing pressure from below from communities – the type of pressure and new associations that councillors would have to take notice of. It is really a discussion on the current state and direction of the wider labour movement that we need.
    And while I’m having a rant…….Why do some of the comments here sling mud at anyone – a man that is – who is over 50 who wears a suit? Should we all be wearing donkey jackets and those woolen Tibetan hats – which actually look better on the Tibetans. My grandfather always went to the Miners Gala wearing three piece suit and his fob watch!

  6. Samuel Wheeler says:

    While central government provides ~75% of funding for local authorities it will determine policy. If you want municipal socialism, you have to hand out power from Westminster. Until then, it will always be arguments over peripherals.

    As for the idea of passing illegal budgets, that’s a great way to generate martyrs and allow individual councillors to feel good about themselves. Does sod all for the vulnerable.

  7. mave chapman says:

    How many people would be a councillor if the pay was lowered or taken away and it was done as a side job as it was in the 60s and 70s and done for the local people.

  8. …like increasing council tax above the threshold set by the government…

    I have not voted Labour for a lot of years, after a lifetime of so doing, following generations before me. Labour is the left behind party, with the working class by income not voting Labour more and more over last 50 years.

    Wonderful blog post, til the above.

    Increasing the council tax would bring more starvation to those hit by low wages stagnated a decade into the past and going to foodbanks, as much as the poor pensioners going to charitable lunch clubs on the lowest state pension of all rich nations, and the barely above 2 per cent of entire welfare bill of the sanctioned unemployed.

    Workfare destroys low waged jobs and is not capitalism.

    Welfare cuts costs health and lives, and hit those in work and poor pensioners, even more than the minority of welfare bill of the unemployed.

    But councils are doomed.

    Somewhere I saw a figure mooted that the council grant would have reduced to barely £2 billion by 2020.

    There is a council in London that is the first entirely privatised council, that has permitted a social housing firm to sell its entire social housing estate to a private developer and evicted all its social tenants, so that the developer can build luxury flats.

    The socially cleansing of London is not just from the centre outwards, but moving the poor out of London, with the best chance of jobs, to the Midlands, like Birmingham, Black Country or Stoke-on-Trent, with the least chance of work.

    Then these socially cleansed take social housing from the locals and jobs by being unemployed and put on workfare, that takes low waged jobs from local people.

    So even The Greens in the one council The Greens rule, Brighton, sided with the Tories on austerity cuts.

    Meanwhile, councils waste huge funding on being multiple layered, when all councils could be unitary thus cutting the number of councillors on expeses (and the cardboard cut out that has now power and not a councillor of the ceremonial mayor, getting even mroe expenses on top) and Council Leader on expenses and a fee.

    Bearing in mind, a councillor can also be an MP on expenses.

    And a council leader can also be a Peer in the House of Lords on expenses.

    So councils will not be in existence in not too distant future.

    Private firms will run a much reduced ‘service’ that offer the poor nothing at all, even threatening to fine up to £1000 the rough sleepers against sleeping in doorways.

    But a very rich plutocrat did say that no society in history throughout the world has ever survived growing massive inequality of access to the basic money for survival.

    He did say the pitchforks are coming.

    Our political class is stuck 1000 years into the past of feudal aristocratic mindset from their aristocratic public school education, so cannot comprehend CAPITALISM let alone social capitalism.

    Because austerity and welfare ‘reform’ aka abolition and the end of the state pension that begins next year to half new pensioners and onwards, is a feudal policy making serfs and slaves of most of the people, so leaving the economy with the bulk of people without the spending money to make an economy work.

    It is what the EU has done to the whole of southern and eastern Europe, wiping out capitalism and leaving doomed economies. The EU (an ancient colonial empire in mindset) and the Tories and Labour, Lib Dems and even The Greens and just as irrelevant UKIP (ancient aristocracy back to 1066 AD) , cannot comprehend how capitalism works.

    Herein ends a potted history of England, from an even more ancient Anglo Greek.


    Only you can bring The Swans new party into reality.

  9. d. gates says:

    It’s down to ifyou can makeLIES look true, be a Labour Councilor, we have found that out in Durham City.

  10. Pingback: It’s now or never: the politics behind the Durham Teaching Assistants dispute | The World Turned Upside Down

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