The Labour Party in Bristol faces a dilemma. Should it join a cabinet formed by the newly elected Mayor George Ferguson. My good friend Darren Lewis has blogged passionately on the subject here:
Fundamentally he is right. A council with no opposition party is effectively a one party state, with deals stitched up in private and democracy relegated. Openness disappears as the parties on the council collude raising the old adage that it doesn’t matter who you vote for they are all the same.
You also have to ask the question is it honest of George to run a campaign which contained in large print on all his leaflets to vote for him as “the only candidate who can beat Labour” (he wasn’t the only candidate who made that claim) and then to invite Labour onto his cabinet. It must seem strange that his promise to beat Labour also meant promoting them.
Also why would Labour want to join on a cabinet with Tories and Lib Dems whose parties in Westminster are through a combination of legal changes, privatisation and funding cuts destroying local Bristol City Council. The latest information suggests £32m cuts next year. Projections by the Conservative led Local Government Association predicts that within a few years councils will only be able to afford to provide care and empty the bins. The Tories and Lib Dems are also breaking up the NHS, introducing massive cuts in benefits to the poorest and deconstructing the public sector.
These are compelling reasons for Labour to shun any cabinet posts.
On the other side the cheer leaders of George are filling twitter with claims of ‘sour grapes’ and ‘sulking’ for people like Darren who say we should nothing to do with George.
I would like to pose another question, one which also picks up on a theme in Darren’s blog. Labour and Marvin Rees did spend time opening conversations with experts both within the Labour Party and many outside. I wide range of issues were debated and filtered to find items which was developed into Marvin’s manifesto. The question is how does Labour use the council to further these ideas? Can they convince George to adopt the living wage or the building of new council housing? Can they put together a budget package which minimises the impact of the cuts on those in greatest need? In some ways it is the age old dilemma for socialists as to whether to work to make capitalism fairer or to stand outside and fight it until it collapses.
The question the Labour Party should prioritise when it meets this week is not ‘should we join the cabinet?’ but ‘how do we implement the measures we set out in our manifesto?’ In my opinion the answer to that can’t be, ‘Let’s wait three and a half years until we can fight the next mayoral election’.
If that that leads to a view that Labour should consider joining the cabinet there would have to be some very important preconditions. That membership of the cabinet does not require collective responsibility (surely an alien idea to an independent which has the hallmarks of party whips and discipline), that decisions must be made in the open and not behind the closed doors of the Mayor’s committee room and that ditching robust scrutiny is a condition of membership.
The cabinet as a group of people with executive power no longer exists, it is now little more than an advisory body to the Mayor. While the work of cabinet members may be important, meetings of the cabinet will be little more than for show. Many decisions of the council will still be made in its collection of committees.
There is no easy answer to this problem and I will play no part in it as I am working in London on the evening when this will be discussed (phew). However the debate needs to be framed around the needs of the people the Labour Party was created to represent, it needs to look forward to the coming years and not backward at the bitter and bitterly disappointing election campaign.