Local elections: Looking for an alternative

Ian Parker reports from Manchester on the run-up to the 5 May council elections.

 

The Labour Party which runs Manchester City Council has quite rightly included in some of its local election publicity complaints about the corrupt ‘partygate’ antics of Boris Johnson, linking pot-hole politics with deeper issues. Left activists here, whether inside or outside the party, will most likely, and again quite rightly, vote for Labour, with some votes also going to the Greens in areas where local Labour councillors have backed shameful anti-environmental private housing developments.

Limits

But the left, whether they remain in the party or have left, or have been expelled, know well that there is a limit to what a Labour council can do to challenge the Tory government, and too many councillors are simply making the best of a bad job, falling in line with the Starmer-led ‘business agenda’ and already implementing it locally. We need to link initiatives inside the Manchester party to develop an ‘alternative manifesto’ with struggles outside, something that the best of the left councillors also know well.

We need to be clear about what cannot be done by the left at a local level and what can and should be done, and what measures can be taken now, however, we vote if we vote at all.

It is not good enough to put a positive spin on progressive measures that are being taken by the council. That leads not only to illusions that the business development growth agenda for the council is fundamentally correct, if only there could be some occasional benefits, but also covers over the hard work of left councillors and Labour Party members who have long argued for a radical alternative. A softly-softly approach is counterproductive. There is no reason why someone on the left should vote for the Labour Party if all that is offered is some feel-good news about road repairs or limited social housing, still less reason for someone on the left to join the party and fight for socialist policies.

Alternatives

Manchester City Council needs to radically break from its bad record on planning permission, one that allows private companies to throw up high-rise buildings with very little concession to what is often laughably called ‘affordable housing’ – promises the companies often renege on – let alone social housing. Alternative measures need to be explicitly ecosocialist, and that means taking seriously the consequences of climate change for Manchester City council overspending its carbon budget – effectively ratcheting up carbon emissions – and scaling back plans to build on green spaces.

Manchester City Council is tied into ruinous plans to develop Manchester Airport, and other airports around the country through its 55% stake in Manchester Airport plc. The airport also ties in with other local councils that claim to have more progressive policies. This development exacerbates the climate crisis, as well as implicating the council in an ‘Airport City’ that is dependent on private profit. This industrial development is not sustainable and needs to be scaled back. This is something a really radical council can only do by divesting from the airport and putting its resources into green travel alternatives.

Work with local private providers needs to be clear who is in charge, and what progressive social agenda they must effectively agree to in order to carry on operating. The direction of travel must be towards collectively-owned provision, with the council operating as a ‘transition town’ towards socialism rather than away from it, away from private housing pricing people out, driving people out.

Services

Vaunting the so-called ‘Preston model’ which relies on prioritising a local ‘circular economy’ through ‘community wealth building’ is not good enough, not even necessarily a move in the right direction. In fact, Preston’s largest employer is BAE systems – one of the world’s biggest arms manufacturers – and so it actually functions as much as an example of what to avoid as to what to follow. This is not ‘municipal socialism’, but purely and simply municipal development geared to the private interests of the most powerful.

The council can impose conditions on private companies that it contracts for services. The taking back of bus routes under council control is explicitly designed to guarantee lower fares and protect routes, for example. This needs to be taken further, with an explicit ban on the ‘fire and rehire’ policies that have been adopted by some companies and a refusal to contract services to companies resorting to such measures.

There has been progress towards a living wage for council employees and for those employed by companies that the council contracts to do care work, but there is a developing crisis in care instead of the development of care as such. Manchester Council has been purchasing homecare at a rate that is one of the lowest in the North West, well below the Home Care Association’s recommended minimum. There needs to be a commitment to a full living wage for all in-house staff and for all contracted staff, with disabled people’s organisations fully funded and fully involved in decision making and overseeing these services, with the aim being to bring home-care back under council administration.

Transparency

Socialist development that is worth the name has to be democratic, and this requires the development, not of the power of big business but the power of people through a ‘participatory budget’. Otherwise, there is suspicion of deals being done, and of decisions fixed in advance of committee meetings. This means that the internal financial mechanisms and each and every financial agreement with local businesses need to be open and transparent, something that is not the case in the Preston model.

These, and other measures, are only possible if there is lively open democracy inside the Labour Party and inside the Labour group on the council. It is the shutting down of the democratic process that allowed racism against Black councillors, for example, to go unchallenged. Crucially, that means standing with comrades who have been unfairly targeted and even, in some cases, expelled from the party.

Any alternative manifesto needs to include a commitment to work with groups like Labour Black Socialists and to openly endorse their decision not to campaign in elections for those who do not speak out against racism. We need to oppose the targeting by the Labour Party apparatus of those who support Jewish Voice for Labour, and commit to working with progressive organisations inside or outside the Labour Party.

Building an alternative

The key here is open debate and transparency about the effect of the cuts that have been imposed by the Tory government. An alternative must be built and publicly fought for wherever we are, and in alliance with those still inside the Labour Party who are open about their disagreements with current policies and direction of travel of the council. Only then will there be grounds for hope, for building a pole of resistance, making something count more than a cross on a scrap of paper.


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Ian Parker is a Manchester-based psychoanalyist and a member of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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