Running Commentary: It’s the council
Most people are almost totally disinterested in local politics. Many people don’t bother to vote in local elections; most probably couldn’t tell you who their councillor is. or which tier of local government is responsible for which services, or which political party runs their local council.
The only exceptions are the London boroughs which attract sensational and distorted media coverage because of their so- called “loony left” policies. The tabloid newspapers are, in general, not the slightest bit interested in what councils do or don’t do about council housing or social services, but let any council give a few pounds to a gay or lesbian group and it becomes front page news. It is little wonder, therefore, that Kin- nock is doing all that he can to dissociate himself from them since his overriding concern is the achievement of political power no matter what policies he has to ditch on the way to Number Ten.
In fact local authorities do affect our lives in important ways. They are responsible for providing education, social services, housing, home helps and day centres. They maintain the roads and remove the rubbish. They provide leisure and recreational facilities — parks, swimming pools, libraries and community centres. They regulate the environment in which we live by granting planning permission to builders.
But local authorities are important for another reason: they are the only other elected authority besides central government. This does not mean that they are especially democratic however. Most councils are out of touch with the needs of workers; they are dominated by representatives of the business community and operate in their interests. It is little wonder that most people are not interested in local politics, since it makes very little difference which party controls the council — life will go on pretty much as before.
In recent years local authorities have seen their powers diminished: a number of areas of responsibility have been removed from council control and have been given instead to non-elected, unaccountable administrative bodies. Councils have also been constrained by the financial limitations imposed on them by successive governments beginning with the cash limits instituted by the last Labour government in the 1970s. and continued by the Tories by means of rate-capping. The Tories carried the attack on local government a stage further when they abolished the GLC and the metropolitan authorities.
The Socialist Party has no illusions about local politics. Unlike the Labour Left or the Town Hall Trots, we do not believe that it is possible to bring about “municipal socialism”. Council housing, day nurseries and non-sexist, non-racist educational policies are not socialism. Local authorities are a part of the state structure for administering capitalism, and must necessarily operate within the constraints laid down, not only by central government, but by the capitalist system itself. Any council which attempts to challenge the priorities of capitalism will find itself under attack.
But political participation, however limited and democracy, however flawed, are important. The attack, not just on the policies of certain councils, but on the very existence of elected bodies, is also an attack on our already very limited opportunities for political participation.