This month’s local elections were very, very bad for Rishi Sunak. Voters overwhelmingly abandoned a Tory Party which has itself abandoned them to poverty while allowing corporate profits to soar.

Despite high abstention rates, we were delighted to see the Conservatives lose over 1000 seats, and Labour gain over 500, including many socialists. The Greens and Lib Dems surged, too. This was a vote against the Tories’ broken Britain, with public services in the gutter and millions struggling to make ends meet.

It was a good night for socialists, as Labour councillors in Worthing boosted their majority, with our very own co-chair Hilary Schan elected for the first time – and Broxtowe Labour gained control for the first time in 20 years thanks to a community organising approach. Voters are clearly responding well to transformative Labour councils, and despite purges from an authoritarian, anti-socialist party machine, we saw a net gain of socialist Labour councillors, building on previous successes.

Last year, more than 100 socialists were elected as Labour councillors for the first time. We made real strides in local government, from Worthing turning red to a Labour majority in Wandsworth after 44 years in opposition. Meanwhile, Momentum co-produced a Community Wealth Building toolkit for councillors to make transformative change locally.

Since then, socialist Labour councillors have been delivering for the many, whether it’s building new council housing or bringing local public services in-house.

While there may be limited scope for gains in national politics at the current juncture, Momentum is focused on building our bases locally, by helping socialists get elected up and down the country. To do so, we are relaunching our Future Councillors’ and Leo Panitch Leadership programmes, training up the next generation of socialist organisers and councillors

This follows on from our organising roadshow with Socialist Campaign Group MPs to help mobilise our base, And what better place to have kicked things off than in Worthing, where we were joined last month by John McDonnell!

So for issue #6 of our political education bulletin, The Educator, we spoke to John and Red Pepper co-editor, Hilary Wainwright, about the legacies and possibilities of municipal socialism in Britain. Plus, Worthing Labour councillor Carl Walker told us about the work he and other socialists are doing in the Sussex town following a community wealth building approach.

Momentum: What is different now for socialists in local government? What new possibilities are there in comparison to the 1980s, and what new limits?

John McDonnell MP: There are certainly limits on what local councils can do nowadays as they do not have the financial resources and freedoms that were available when I was elected to the Greater London Council in 1981. Nevertheless, an approach that shifts power into local communities, just as community wealth building has demonstrated, can be a transformative experience and prepare the ground for campaigns to come.

For socialists today, passing power into the hands of the people is the most effective role for any socialist in local government. It lays the foundations for any challenges to the economic and political system that fails us.

Hilary Wainwright: The difference in the 1980s was that the Tory government at the time poured a lot of effort into emasculating local authorities, as they were more likely to be controlled by Labour than the Conservatives.

But in general, local governments had more strength than they do today, particularly since restrictions have been put in place to decimate their influence. This chokehold on local democracy wouldn’t happen in other countries, such as Germany, where the power of local authority is inscribed in their Constitution.

Carl Walker: Community Wealth Building is the obvious example of what is different today, but I also think that we need to be serious about democratising local decisions in order to address the three biggest crises facing local governments; cost-of-living, housing and the climate emergency. This means following leading Labour councils in breaking down the barriers between the council and our residents, which includes devolving decision-making and resources to local communities that includes people that are typically excluded, such as minorities, young people and those on lower incomes. In Worthing, we were re-elected on a mandate to be a ‘Council for the Community’ and are embarking on a programme of devolved decision-making where residents have agency over what is happening in the town.

Momentum: John, can you talk to us about some of the changes you worked to bring about on the Greater London Council?

John: When elected as a councillor, I aimed to transform the relationship between citizens and local authorities into a truly democratic one.

To do so, myself and others threw open the doors of County Hall to anyone that was interested in improving the quality of life of Londoners. We used the resources and finances of the GLC to enable community groups, trade unions and campaigners to develop their own ideas and implement them.

Many of the policies focused on people’s daily lives. We reduced the fares on the buses and the tube and expanded the transport services. We made sure the fire service and environmental services were properly funded. We worked with trade unions to develop an economic strategy for the city that would protect and create well paid, unionised jobs. We also funded and stimulated a massive programme of creative arts.

Momentum: Margaret Thatcher infamously abolished the GLC in 1986. What did this teach you about the relationship between local and national government, and the threat we pose to Establishment interests?

John: For many of us on the Left, the political theory behind engaging in local government was the theory of “In and Against the State.”

This was an understanding of the state as not just a set of institutions but a political relationship between the state and the individual citizen, in which in practice the state had the power and dominated.

So at a time when raising any equality issues was branded as “loony left” by the Establishment, we stood firm and worked with women’s groups, communities of colour and LGBTQIA+ campaigners to develop and implement equalities policies that were groundbreaking for the country.

Hilary: The GLC was an obvious example, but the Greater Manchester Council was also abolished in 1986 as a way to eviscerate local Left power. However, the Left was more of a unionised force than it is today, particularly in London. The Left has gained influence in between, of course, and it’s good to see socialists elected in the most recent elections.

Momentum: Hilary, how might the Left interact with trade unions locally in pursuit of municipal socialism?

Hilary: It’s crucial that Left councillors and trade unions identify areas of mutual interest, such as a commitment to decent jobs, good working conditions and a liveable wage. Councillors could then convene regular meetings with union officials to figure out what levers of power are available in local government to enact change.

For example, the use of purchasing power would be key to driving Left councils’ community wealth building initiatives. Unions can help by putting pressure on council providers to purchase from the local economy rather than from multinational corporations. We used to call that ‘contract compliance’, which community wealth building now encompasses by bringing together public sector bodies in collaboration with local providers.

Furthermore, trade unions could play a crucial role in creating municipal enterprises with the aim to bring services back in-house after years of outsourcing. This would promote direct labour that maximises public benefit rather than profit.

There are hurdles to overcome though, particularly with the limited powers councils may have when it comes to strengthening the bargaining rights of trade unions at local level. For example, central funding is a huge factor in determining how influential the relationship between Labour Left councils and unions can be.

Momentum: What international movements can we take inspiration from, and what lessons might they hold for us in relation to local politics?

Hilary: Something has inspired me for a long time is the idea of participatory budgeting that originated in Brazil in the 1980s. This gave ordinary citizens the decision-making power to allocate and prioritise public spending projects in local municipalities, and we can draw critical lessons from the scheme here in the UK.

A participatory model could help us push for proper funding and a democratically-decided budget. Although, with such large-scale cuts to public services today, it’d be difficult to implement as cuts are not something citizens would want to be involved in.

In addition, inspiration can be found on a European level. I mentioned Germany upholding the influence of local authorities, and the institute I work for, the Transnational Institute, published a terrific study that showed the return of municipal services across the continent, from Norway to France.

Momentum: In Worthing, how much of a stumbling block is government austerity for socialists locally, Carl? Community wealth building is sometimes seen as a creative response to that issue, but are there limits to how much it can mitigate the impact of consistent, ongoing funding? 

Carl Walker: Austerity is a pressing problem for most local authorities, since the loss of 50% of funding in the last ten years has meant councils simply can’t provide core services in the most effective way to help those in desperate need.

Any economic strategy introduced under austerity is likely to come face-to-face with profound challenges. However, community wealth building is an effective strategy whether a council operates under financial strain or not. The principles of supporting community banking, working with anchor institutions to procure local businesses, and ensuring that as much of the wealth stays as local as possible are crucial.

The economic benefits of community wealth building is that it keeps money circulating in the local economy and helps boost local businesses, education, skills and services in a way that simply can’t be achieved by other economic models. It should be a key policy for the Labour Party going forward, at both local and national level.

Momentum: Worthing is rapidly becoming a model of its own, partially in the context of a united and energised local party, something of an oasis in the national context. How have you been able to forge unity around an ambitious programme?

Carl: Most Labour members coalesce around sensible socialist policies much like the majority of the public. In Worthing, Labour councillors and local party members took ownership of the local manifesto by working in collaboration to create it. It helped bring people together, and they soon realised that in terms of policy they share a lot in common.

It became clear to us that promoting local party unity is essential to win votes, so we try to function as a member-led local party as much as possible. We also developed opportunities for members to actively contribute in their communities prior to taking control of the council. This has retained members’ engagement in local politics.

Momentum: What opportunities do you see for socialists in local government under a UK Labour government? How might Labour’s proposed democratic reforms – whether that’s enabling democratic control of buses or devolving economic powers – open up more space for socialists? And what are the limits of this kind of democratic empowerment without an accompanying funding boost?

Carl: All public services and local authorities need a funding boost and any economic programme will struggle unless it’s properly funded by a national government. We’ve shown in places like Preston, Worthing and Broxtowe that municipal socialism can bring real gains and get real support from local residents as long as we do it in partnership with residents and communities themselves. I think the democratic reforms proposed by Labour are promising, as long as they are carried out in the right way and with the right financial support.

Momentum: What gives you hope right now?

Carl: The reality that a lot of the public agree with Labour members when it comes to supporting a transformative agenda to to provide stability and support to our communities.

Funded by taxes on the wealthy, policies such as community wealth building, devolved decision-making, mass council house building, rent controls, free school meals, public ownership of utilities, healthcare and education, a socialist Green New Deal and a National Care Service all remain popular. The solutions to the crises we face aren’t exotic utopias that exist beyond possibility- they are already being introduced at local level.

End note:

Thanks for reading everyone – and a big thanks to John McDonnell, Hilary Wainwright and Carl Walker for contributing! If you want to share your ideas on how to improve our political education newsletter, or any feedback you may have, please feel free to email us on [email protected]. Your feedback is greatly appreciated.

Do you want to be a part of the next generation of socialist councillors? Apply for the Future Councillors’ Programme before Monday 29th May.

If you also like the work that we’re doing to build towards municipal socialism, consider donating today.

We’re also delighted to be supporting Feminise Politics Now!, a weekend of socialist strategising and training focused on local government, taking place 1-2 July. Sign up for this free course by the 4th June.

In solidarity,

Team Momentum