Paul Foot

Waste disposal

(February 1996)

From Notes Of The Month, Socialist Review, No.194, February 1996, pp.4-5.
Copyright © 1996 Socialist Review.
Downloaded with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Just as a new television series harks back to the great local corruption story of the 1960s and 1970s – the Poulson scandal – a new orgy of local government corruption emerges which reduces Poulson to his proper status as minor hypocrite and crook. Poulson was a Tory who was evenhanded in his bribes with Tory and Labour councillors. The new scandal is pure Tory. At its head is Lady Porter, who modelled herself on her heroine Thatcher, and for many years led the Tory council at Westminster, the jewel in the Tory local government crown.

The results of the council elections in 1986 terrified the Tories. Labour came within a few votes of taking control of Westminster. At once Porter and her henchmen, who included the current Tory MP for Milton Keynes, Barry Legg, called a series of secret meetings to hatch a plot which would ensure that Labour would never get so close again. The plan was simple: to use the powers of the council in planning, housing and even in street amenities, to move Labour voters out of marginal wards and Tory ones in.

Many years later this plan was brought to the attention of the District Auditor, a mild, middle of the road accountant from Touche Ross called John Magill. The historical role of the District Auditor in local government was simple: to control the extravagance of Labour council spending on the poor. Before workers voted, when Tories and Liberals controlled councils, there was of course no problem with extravagance. Tory and Liberal councils were keen to safeguard the rich ratepayers they represented, so if they were extravagant with council money, the extravagance was always showered on the rich.

After Labour started winning control of councils and using the rates to help the poor – and especially after 1921 when Labour councillors in Poplar defied the law and went to prison to establish their right to raise money from the rich to spend on Labour voters – the tightest possible control was imposed by central government on such spending. The National (Tory) Government in 1933 passed a local government law which gave the District Auditor, an unelected official, power to supervise and check council spending. Any councillor found by the District Auditor to be overspending was subject to a surcharge, bankruptcy and disqualification.

For half a century the District Auditors waged war on ‘wayward’ (socialist) Labour councils. In 1972, when all 11 Labour councillors at Clay Cross in Derbyshire refused to obey a Tory law to put up council rents, the District Auditor surcharged and disqualified them all. In the 1980s a specially vile campaign was launched against the Labour controlled Derbyshire council which refused to put up charges for school meals and other council services as much as the Tory government (and the Derbyshire Tory MPs, led by Edwina Currie) insisted. Once again the District Auditor lined up with the Tories. The climax to this campaign came when the county council, after the media unions were smashed at Wapping, transferred its teachers’ advertising from The Times and Sunday Times. The District Auditor, and eventually the Court of Appeal, declared this democratic and eminently just and proper decision to be ‘illegal’ and the District Auditor promised to surcharge the council leader, David Bookbinder.

By one of those curious twists which has characterised the politics of the 1990s, the District Auditor in Westminster, driven by the anti-extravagance logic which defined his job, has turned his full powers on Lady Porter and Westminster Council and has found their gerrymandering to be more grossly corrupt and expensive than all the so called municipal socialism of the century put together.

Screaming like a wounded beast, Porter rushed to Tory ministers to tell them to sack the men in charge of the national audit office and get these impertinent officials off their backs. Ministers, full of rhetoric about the ‘waste’ of Labour authorities, could do nothing. Porter hired a host of Labour and even Communist lawyers to put her case to the District Auditor – to no avail. The final attack on her is even more devastating than its predecessors. Porter has fled to Israel. Bookbinder has been suddenly and unexpectedly absolved from any surcharge; and the Tory rhetoric about wasteful Labour councils in this year’s municipal elections will have a hollow ring.


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