Saturday, 14 February 2009

Labour's long road halted?

The essence of radical politics in this country has been an emphasis on localism.This has been particularly true in Northampton where despite the radical traditions of local workers-the influence of shoe workers-the dominant political force has been an institutional conservativism.
Oh its true that the shoeworkers elected Bradlaugh and Labouchere,but they were in many ways blips on the political landscape.
It was in local politics that radical traditions were first established in the 19c.

The traditional non-comformist spirit,including a healthy dose of congregationism,allowed for a strain of liberalism and subsequently a lively social democrat and labour influence.

Before there were SDF councillors in Northampton there were elected SDF members on the Bpard of Guardians-including the redoubtable Rose Scott, the wife of Councillor CJ Scott-who were amongst the earliest socialist activists in the town.Scott was elected for what was then North Ward-now most of modern Castle ward(old traditions die hard in these parts!)

But the real emphasis was always on providing local voices for the local community.
Sucessive governments throughout the last century tried to weaken and marginalise local government.
Centralist tendencies have always been a feature of Westminster Governments of whatever complexion-they abhor any rival power base of whatever hue.

I was first elected in 1973-the time of the last great upheaval in local government when County Boroughs (aka unitary authorities) like Northampton were abolished and the dog's breakfast that we know as two tier was introduced.

Mind you the creation then was done in a more organised way, indeed for the year 1973-74 the town had two Councils running in tandem, the old County Borough running down and the new District Council (NBC) running in.
It did allow the new authority a time to sort out its structures and the newly elected members to work out what they were doing.
Sadly the last structural re-organisation (around 2002/3) allowed for no such run in period and the cabinet system has shuffled on ever since.
It has been and continues to be a disaster.It was an attempt to mirror what happens in Parliament and even adopted the language and styles of Westminster-the only thing missing being the House of Lords!

What we have is in effect a one party state with no effective means of holding the execurive to account.
The 'cabinet' or 'portfolio holders' is as good an example of rampant cronyism that you could find-and the fact that'portfolio holders' get much larger allowances than the rest of the common herd,and their position is in the gift of the leader-then it is hardly surprising that the main beneficiaries of the system are toadying mediocrities.

But allowing for the fact that even under the old system Committee chairs were largely in the gift of the leader there were at least committees in place that included opposition members who could be involved in part of the decision making process.

It is alleged that the way the executive is held to account is through the scrutiny system.
Now given that the scrutiny committess are largely if not completely chaired by members of the administration-then the idea that they would hold their collegues to any sort of account is an insult to the intelligence.
Added to which the scrutiny process has little or no support to investigate the cabinet.
They are supposed to replicate parliamentary select committees,but without any research support,or indeed any means of examining decisions with professional assistance,from day one scrutiny was a toothless process.
And one of my last activities as a Councillor was to chair the Finance Scrutiny committee during the Keith Davies 'administration'.

We could of course question and examine decisions, but only after the ebvent-decisions were taken and then 'called in'-but that was always retrospective and the administration had done what it wanted.

Added to which the modern system now prevents any real examination by the whole Council.there are less meetings,and many important decisons are either taken in cabinet in private or delegated to officers.
There is considerable disquiet amongst opposition members=or at least some-well at least Tony Clarke!-about how little elected members are allowed to know about the Council of which they are members.
It is clear that that disquiet extends to many members of the Lib-Dem administration too,where many of their back benchers feel that they are being given the mushroom treatment-kept in the dark and fed bullshit!
For many years it was the Labour party that argued for strong local government, indeed through the Thatcher reich it was Labour local authorities that kept the resistance going.Neil Kinnock described Labour Councils as the 'battered shield' of democracy.
For years it was the likes of the Scottish authorities,the London Boroughs,Clay Cross ,Sheffield and yes,Liverpool,that gave hope and inspiration to those who wanted better.
It was the inspiration of many Labour Councillors that persuaded many of us to get involved and create if not quite the Socialist Republic of Northampton at least a few 'red bases'-People's castle ward for one!

The last reorganisation was a disaster and if there is to be any semblance of localism left a decade hence then efforts need to be made now.
Here in Northampton we can argie again with considerable vigour for a unitary authority for Northampton, an end to the absurd cabinet system that ctrates two and three tier councillors and maybe,just maybe-the idea of a proper champion for the town-a directly elected Mayor answerable to the whole electorate of Northampton.
It would be good to think that the Labour Party-for so long the champion of local accountability would be leading the charge against this woeful Lib-Dem administration.
But sadly the famous five are showing no inclination to lead on behalf of the people of Northampton.
The labour leadership is non existant and lies supine at the feet of the Lib-Dems!
But then they did rewatd Keith with a generous increase in his special responsibility allowance!
Responsibility for what?


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