Keir Starmer Keir Starmer, Photo: UK Parliament Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, linked at bottom of article

Labour’s backing of the Tory assault on local democracy underlines the need for the left to fight for a political alternative, argues Alex Snowdon

This week’s developments in connection with Liverpool Council represent an assault on democracy by the Tory government. They also reveal the extent to which Labour’s leadership will go in its efforts to return politics to the ‘business as usual’ of the pre-Corbyn period. 

Liverpool’s Labour council is now set to have many of its functions overseen by unelected officials. Tory communities secretary Robert Jenrick is using allegations of ‘financial irregularities’ to justify this. An investigation had already been announced, but this new announcement represents a disturbing escalation.  

Jenrick told the House of Commons on Wednesday that government-appointed commissioners will oversee key aspects of the council’s running. He claimed there were “multiple apparent failures by Liverpool City Council in complying with its best-value duty”. 

The claim that the council isn’t complying with its ‘best-value duty’ when it comes to funding decisions is designed to seem like a neutral, administrative matter. It is in fact political. 

This refers to restrictive measures introduced by the Tories as part of its austerity programme from 2010 onwards. As well as making huge cuts to local government funding, the Tories sought to further shackle councils by imposing legal guidance designed to reinforce outsourcing and privatisation. 

The commissioners’ ‘oversight’ will be in place for at least three years. Jenrick told parliament that the council’s current strategy risks ‘damaging the city’s ability to attract investment from reputable developers’. That provides a sense of the politics behind the new announcement. There is little pretence of respecting local democracy. 

Liverpool is no left-wing council, but it is solidly Labour. The Tories want to use it as an example to discipline all councils. 

There has recently been a serious dispute over who will be Labour’s candidate for city mayor in May’s elections. The Labour bureaucracy undertook a stitch-up to avoid a left-winger being selected. These new measures will make whoever succeeds Joe Anderson as mayor largely ineffectual. 

Disgracefully, Labour’s leadership has backed the government’s approach. It suits its purposes to neuter Liverpool Labour, especially in the light of the furore over mayor candidate selection. More broadly, it is an example of the centralisation in Labour that accompanies its sharp move to the right politically. 

The absurd ‘longlisting’ of one candidate for the Hartlepool by-election is another example of this top-down approach. It is all about shutting down space for the left, or for any kind of dissent, inside the party. Labour’s leadership is determined to send a clear message to the left that its only option is loyal subordination. 

The response from Labour’s left wing, and from Labour-affiliated unions, has been weak. At national level it appears to be treated as merely a local matter, despite the wider implications and political nature of the attacks. Locally there has been no coordinated or serious response. 

This is an attack on local democracy by the Tories. They are supported by a Labour leadership more bothered about smashing the left than opposing the government. Between them they are determined to narrow the boundaries of politics, with a more consensual – and highly centralised – political culture. 

The left needs to stand up for democracy and offer a political alternative. 

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

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