A lot of discussion about the Labour Party at the moment seems to focus on fairly abstract terrain: what the leadership are saying, what the rest of the Parliamentary party are saying, whether Corbyn could win a general election in 2020 – this last one feels like a particularly weird question for people to be talking about, as if anyone, having gone through the last few years, is thinking “ah yes, we are in a stable situation where I feel confident about making long-term predictions, because things generally seem to be playing out as I would expect them to”. But here we are.
What seems frustratingly absent, a lot of the time, is any consideration of the fact that, whoever might win a hypothetical general election in the future, huge areas of the country are ruled by Labour councils on the local level right now, which means that, when people in those areas start trying to change anything, or even to defend what they already have, Labour councils are the most immediate thing they run up against.
Over the past few years, this has often involved local struggles over things like nursery or library closures; right now, the main flashpoints seem to be over the roles played by local councils in running down London’s social housing, and the brilliant organising by teaching assistants in challenging pay cuts in Durham and Derby, along with Wakefield Council’s role in the Kinsley 3 dispute.
For those not familiar with the situation in Durham, a recent article by Charlotte Austin in lefty-Labour publication the Clarion gives a decent overview from a very Labour-centric perspective*. For those of us not starting from an automatic loyalty to Labour, there are a few things about the Durham situation that appear surprising: considering how angry the teaching assistants and their supporters are, it’s quite surprising that TUSC-type lefties don’t seem to be making any attempt at all to stand in the local elections. Similarly, while Austin worries about the threat posed by independents “with UKIP-esque politics”, it’s remarkable how absent UKIP themselves are (a quick check shows them contesting 14 out of a possible 126 council seats) – a Labour heartland area, that voted quite strongly for leave, where a lot of traditional Labour voters are really pissed off, would seem like the sort of thing that they should be all over. I don’t know exactly why UKIP are so absent in Durham, but the optimistic reading would be that the old socialist traditions are still strong enough to ward off the purple tories, even as those traditions are coming unmoored from any residual loyalty to Labour as an institution.
For a left-Labourite publication like the Clarion, Durham shows the need to “seal the future of the Labour Party”; for those of us who want to see a revived working-class movement, but don’t have any particular attachment to Labour and the bosses in the town halls, it’s harder to say what “the lesson” is; it’s not the most stirring of conclusions, but perhaps we just need to wait and see where the self-organised Durham TAs’ struggle goes next, while lending what support we can where we can. If nothing else, it’s worth paying attention to just for the reminder that this thing called the Labour party isn’t just about Corbyn and McDonnell, or Jarvis and Watson, or rows about anti-Semitism: in a much more real and direct way, in the lived experience of a lot of people, it’s about Simon Henig and a 23% pay cut, or about Derby council and the same pay cut, or Stephanie Cryan and overcrowded houses in Southwark.
*although it leaves out the amazing detail that, at the same time as attacking low-paid workers to save money, the same council also decided to pour millions into bailing out a cricket club.