Unless something dramatic happens, it looks like Labour will be out of power in national government for at least five years. In the meantime, around 7,000 Labour Councillors are actively involved in local government. Labour runs over 130 Councils, including many of the UK’s major cities and regions.
Councils have had their funding cut dramatically since 2010 and traditionally Labour held areas have been hardest hit by Tory-government cuts. In early 2016 Councillors will have to set some very difficult budgets and make choices no Labour representative would ever want to make.
In spite of this, Labour Councillors make a massive positive difference to our communities. Despite enormous cuts to our funding, Councillors continue to demonstrate the positive difference voting Labour makes. Labour Councillors continue to champion policies that make a real difference. Labour Councils are building new affordable housing, paying workers the living wage, promoting green energy, helping people back to work, tackling payday lending and promoting the use of credit unions, regenerating communities and supporting local businesses.
Despite the Tory cuts, local government is home to exciting innovation. I am proud to be a Councillor in a London borough that owns and operates its own district heating power plant. The Bunhill Energy Centre is situated in a densely populated, high rise neighbourhood on the edge of the City of London. The area’s high population density makes it the perfect site for a district heating network.
The centre provides cheap, greener energy heating 720 council houses and two leisure centres. Islington Council also sells heat to hundreds of new, privately developed homes. The centre has led to a CO2 reduction of around 60%. It has also allowed us to freeze energy bills for our residents while the market prices went up 20%.
We are extending the district heating network to connect to another 450 homes, using waste heat from a London Underground ventilation shaft and a nearby electrical substation. A growing number of Labour Councils are pioneering district heating. Other Labour Councils are undertaking innovative solar or tidal power projects. Together in local government we are tackling climate change and providing our families, pensioners and some of our most vulnerable residents with cheaper bills and warmer homes.
Labour Councils are doing some amazing things, even in opposition Labour Councillors are delivering for their communities and flying the flag for Labour values. Our Labour oppositions are holding their Councils to account, scrutinising public services and getting the best deal for their residents.
Only a few months have passed since the gruelling General Election campaign. Over and over again on the doorstep we heard people complain that politics seems remote, detached, out of touch with the lives and concerns of ordinary people. Trust in politicians and public institutions seemed to hit an all-time low.
I’ll admit I’ve never heard anyone one the doorstep say: “What we really need is a constitutional convention”. But actually devolution offers an answer to the disillusioned voters. Labour should champion our own, inclusive vision for devolution – one that empowers communities by devolving power, funding and accountability to local people. Different parts of the UK face different challenges and often local people are best place to identify both the challenges they face and the solutions to them.
Labour must demonstrate how we are prepared to listen to communities – even if we don’t always all like what they have to say. We need to give a voice to local communities and let them speak for themselves.
There are some very important local elections between now and 2020. Local and national government representatives should reflect the diversity of the UK as a whole. Organisations like the Fabian Women’s Network have done excellent work recruiting and supporting women to stand as Councillors. Once elected, the Fabian Women’s Network and the Local Government Association play an important role encouraging and supporting women into leadership positions.
For the next five years many Councillors will have more power and influence over their local areas than Members of Parliament. Our Town Halls are so much more than just fantastic wedding venues. If you want to serve your community, deliver progressive Labour policies and make a difference to your local community, stand to become a Councillor.
This first appeared in the September 2015 issue of Fabiana.