Illusions of Power part 4: The new municipal socialism

Author: 

Mick O'Sullivan and Martin Thomas

In moving from the half-revolutionary politics they started off with, the new local government left have not arrived back at traditional Labour reformism, unmodified.

A new 'municipal socialism' has been developed, argued most coherently by Sheffield City Council leader David Blunkett.

One of the new left's most telling arguments against the old - guard councils was that they rested on and were governed by the council bureaucracy, There was no accountability and access. to council politics was restricted to a few interest groups, usually the leaders of the council trade unions.

In the run-up to the 1982 London borough elections London Labour Briefing carried many articles on this subject. For example, Peter Tatchell wrote about a determination to replace the old right-wingers "with councillors who will do what ordinary working people want them to do".

Lucas

Blunkett generalises: social democratic programmes have been "essentially confined to extending central state control over the economy, and so increasing its productivity and efficiency... social expenditure follows] as a by-product, an affordable benevolence out of successful economic regeneration" ('Building from the Bottom', by Blunkett and Geoff Green, p.5).

"Our alternative owes something to the popular planning ideas developed by shop stewards in Lucas Aerospace". Council finance should be used to influence the local economy: "the emphasis should be on reforming (by planning agreements or otherwise)... working conditions"

Local authorities should be "model employers", with industrial democracy. Council services should be decentralised and put under community control.

All this might "create an administration which might prefigure a wider socialist society".

Here, the new municipal socialism has become something completely removed from the class struggle-a matter of showing that "local socialist initiatives can establish in a community setting an alternative set of values to those of the Thatcher Government". Direct struggle is even ruled out in the short term: "we .must improve our services before we can defend them".

Such politics - in Sheffield and elsewhere - do not produce what they promise. Sheffield NALGO has found the City Council a lot less than a 'model employer'! The ratecapping battle showed the limits of new promises of accountability: one council after another, and Sheffield among them, defied Labour Party decisions to set a rate.

This is logical. For if services must be "improved" before they can be "defended", then in a period of economic crisis the council must somehow find ways to get better services out of its workforce with the same or fewer resources. If the council's activity is about creating local experiments in socialist values, then those projects are more important than crude trade-union interests.

The GLC since 1982 has operated on a similar philosophy to Blunkett, but with more ventures intended to promote feminist and anti-racist values.

It has done much that is useful and genuinely imaginative. It is not true, however, that the GLC has been creating some new and more radical form of socialism.

For example, "the GLC's radical attack on racial and sexual inequality at work,' has, as its major thrust "borrowed a model from the United States" (John Carr, New Socialist July 1 985).

In the US, some 300,000 companies, covering a third of the US workforce, have their policies on equality and positive discrimination for women and blacks checked as a condition for getting Federal government contracts. The GLC, with considerably less muscle, is trying to use its buying power to the same effect.

Fine as far as it goes, but no-one thinks that US federal governments have been blazing new paths in socialist politics!

The US also has black mayors, feminist mayors (and in one town an all-lesbian/gay local council). All that without any hint of socialism.

Municipal patronage for oppressed or badly-off groups- is not specially socialist. It is not even a break from the Tammany Hall model of municipal politics.

Tammany Hall, after all, originated in a radical movement. The infant Democratic Party was about the less-privileged of New York organising, through a party machine to oust the established gentry who ran the city and the state. Then the Democratic Party became the means for the numerous but generally poor Irish immigrants to get a grip on local government.

Many aspects of the new municipal reformism seem colourful and bold. That says more about the drabness of mainstream British Labourism (and Liberalism) in recent decades than about anything else. It is certainly no good reason for the labour movement to accept that municipal reformism as a substitute for genuine working-class socialism.