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‘Illegal budgets’ – I’m no Corbynista, but this was media mischief

‘Illegal budgets’ – I’m no Corbynista, but this was media mischief

🕔01.Oct 2018

I wasn’t going to bother.  I mean, if you get into a state every time the Labour leader answers a TV interviewer’s tricksy question with the first words that come into his head, and the Daily Mail headlines the answer into a major revelatory gaffe … well, you might as well become a politician, writes Chris Game.

But this time there was a ‘However’.

Real politicians, in the form of some of our most respected big city council leaders, allowed themselves to get sucked into what I’m pretty confident will quickly prove to have been merely about the 93rd example of a Jeremy misspeak.

Back to nearly the beginning – Andrew Marr’s 25-minute pre-Conference BBC interview with the Labour leader last Sunday morning.

It was predictable fare. The first 20 minutes trying to embarrass Corbyn over Brexit and antisemitism, then three minutes on the whole of Labour’s domestic policy agenda. Workers on boards, a triple lock for pensioners, child care subsidies, low-carbon technology, etc. – all apparently too yawny.

Time enough, though, for some silly personal questions about whether JC liked being leader and would he still be there in 2022.  Then, in the last 90 seconds, the state and future of local government – based on what Militant were doing on Liverpool Council 33 years ago.

The previous day, in her speech to the Labour Women’s Conference, MP Dawn Butler, Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, had rather naively quoted the slogan coined by London’s Poplar Council in the 1920s in its famous ‘Rates Rebellion’ that led to 30 councillors, including six women, being cruelly but heroically imprisoned: “Better to break the law than break the poor”.

It’s my guess that, representing a desperately cash-strapped London borough herself, if Butler had used the quote in its original context, comparing Brent councillors’ current struggles to cope with crippling year-on-year funding cuts with those of their Poplar predecessors, she’d have been applauded. But she didn’t.

Instead, being in Liverpool, she chose as her reference group that city’s Labour council in the 1980’s, that, under the de facto leadership of Derek Hatton (expelled from the party then but now back, possibly), had pinched the Poplar slogan for its Trotskyist Militant tactic of challenging both the Thatcher Government’s rate-capping policy and the Labour leadership by setting an illegal budget.

That was it.  Butler made no name-check of Militant, and certainly no call for today’s councillors to set illegal budgets or to break the law or challenge the party’s leadership in any other way. Simply “a shout out to all councillors fighting every day against these Tory cuts” and a recall of that slogan.

Even so, poor judgement.  Butler was immediately attacked on social media by Labour colleagues, and Andrew Marr had virtually a ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ question to close his Corbyn interview.

No time for JC to discuss the £16 billion in grant funding that councils will have lost in a decade, or mention that next year – according to the Conservative-led Local Government Association – 168 councils will receive no core central government funding at all.  And certainly none for him to outline Labour’s proposals for “the proper funding of local government”.

He’d managed to squeeze in his not terribly memorable soundbite – that “you can’t use local government as the conveyor belt for austerity” – and had tried explaining to Marr how both the “politics and legalities of the whole thing have moved on” since the 1980s – as obviously they have, in respect of both budget-setting and rate/council tax-capping.

But Marr was rehearsing his prepared question: “How would you regard local authorities now which broke the law in order to make their political point?”

If only, I thought …. the man smoked and could, like Harold Wilson, play with his pipe for 20 seconds; or unwrap a cough sweet; or refer Marr back to the letter he himself had written to Leaders of all Council Labour Groups within weeks of becoming Leader. Or even, just this once, pause for thought.

But no, he rushed straight in with unchained empathy:

I understand it, I absolutely understand it … I was angry then and I’m angry now, when I see local authorities trying their best to deliver good quality services, and the whole time the Government is cutting their grant…

It was pretty obvious that what he was understanding was the plight of councillors year after year having to make desperately difficult decisions about which services to cut, which group of residents’ lives to make more difficult. There’s a world of difference between wishing the law were different and deliberately breaking it, but thoughtlessly he’d blurred it.

He wasn’t saying they should break the law, or that they’d be treated like latter-day Poplar heroines and heroes if they did.

Indeed, in that letter to Labour Group Leaders, he’d said precisely the opposite – spelling out how such action today “would mean either council officers or, worse still, Tory ministers deciding council spending priorities.”

He could and should, therefore, have made his and Labour’s position completely unambiguous: that even McDonnell’s days of trying, as GLC Finance Chair, to manoeuvre the Livingstone-led council into setting an illegal budget are decades behind him.

But he didn’t, and the Mail seized on it

Labour MP ‘praises hard-left council which broke the law’ amid fears of a return to militant tactics.

Two plus two makes five, but that’s what the Mail considers to be its job, and, as often happens, the reporting beneath the headlines was more restrained.

Both Butler and Corbyn respectively had only “appeared” (to the Mail) to “salute” and “praise” the Liverpool councillors’ defiance, and, for any readers who got that far, there was even a reference to the Corbyn/McDonnell letter. The mischief, though, was done.

Even so, it seemed that whatever impact it had was dying down, until some big-name Labour council leaders jumped in.

They’d been the ones to whom the 2015 Corbyn/McDonnell letter had been directly addressed, so they more than most knew both the leader’s and the party’s position on setting illegal budgets.

Even so, choosing to follow the Mail’s interpretation of Corbyn’s reply to Marr being “in support of councils that refuse to set legal budgets”, they made a point of announcing their refusal to back him, while reiterating the policy set out in the Leader’s own letter.

Odd, on the face of it, until you remember that these leaders have seriously big issues with the party leadership over Labour’s ‘Democracy Review’ and particularly its section on Local Government – described by Nick Forbes, Leader of Newcastle City Council and chair of the Local Government Association’s Labour group, as, inter alia, “deeply insulting”, “depressing”, “confused and inconsistent”, and “unworkable”.

The proposals that have received most coverage are that leaders of Labour councils (like Forbes) would be directly elected by party members, rather than Labour councillors, who themselves would be accountable to new local government committees coterminous with council boundaries, which would oversee “all issues” relating to local government, including policy development and candidate selection, plus having a role in ensuring manifesto pledges are delivered.

Unlike the Marr/Corbyn interview, this is serious stuff, and across certainly the senior ranks of Labour local government it’s detested, overall and in detail, to the extent that just before last week’s conference Labour’s National Executive Committee agreed to set aside for a year the most controversial of the party reform proposals.

Yes, set aside, not jettisoned, and they, I’d suggest, are the main reason why Jeremy’s careless response to Marr received more and longer media attention than it was ever worth.

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