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International Socialism, Winter 1962


P. Mansell

Socialism at the Parish Pump – the Comment


From International Socialism, No.11, Winter 1962, pp.10-11.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


P. Mansell writes under a pseudonym.

The subject dealt with in Raymond Challinor’s article deserves, as he suggests, discussion in Intenational Socialism. My comments are offered as a contribution to that discussion and in the hope that readers who are, or have been, local councillors will be stimulated to contribute from their own experience.

In the sphere of local government, as elsewhere, a Socialist faces a fight on two fronts – against the Tories, both locally and as the central government, and against the right-wing Labour leadership nationally and possibly at the local level as well. The function of a Labour councillor has therefore to be considered in the context of the struggle between the right and the left within the party and at the present juncture this may be more important than the impact he is able to make on the broad mass of Labour supporters in the locality.

In very many cases, Labour Groups have succeeded in setting themselves up as virtually independent of the local party, on the analogy of the Parliamentary Party and Annual Conference. They insist that the Group’s decisions are the last word on all issues of Council policy. Thus a handful of councillors, in the sacred name of ‘democracy’ (majority vote within the Group) pursue a line of action which may be completely at variance with the views of the GMC and the party members as a whole. Left-wing councillors obviously must attack this pernicious system by insisting on decisions of the local party overriding those of the Group, as part of the struggle for democracy in the party as well as a means of strengthening their own position in right-left clashes within the Group. It should be possible, at the least, to get regular reports to the GMC from the Group through delegates elected by the GMC, control by the GMC over the content of election addresses and regular meetings at ward and party level at which Councillors are cross-examined and obliged to justify their policies, etc.

Before accepting nomination as a councillor, a left-winger must, of course, make it absolutely clear to the party where he stands on all major issues of local government and must be certain of substantial political (and not merely personal) support in the party. Otherwise he is likely to find himself a prisoner of the right-wing on the council.

The likelihood of a head-on clash between right and left on local issues is less when Labour is in opposition at the town hall than when it is in power, since there will probably be some common basis in attacking the Tories or Liberals. Even thoroughgoing reformists can be bold in words when they are unlikely to lead to action. Where Labour is in power and the group is dominated by the right-wing, left-wing councillors will probably soon find themselves up against ‘discipline’, that is, with the demand that they abstain from public criticism of or dissension from the Group’s; decisions. Clearly, unless the issue is very trivial and not worth a fight, the left-wing must insist on ventilating it openly. They are wasting their time if they talk in Socialist terms to a few dozen councillors in private and in public support, actively or passively, a reformist policy. The consequence may be the loss of the Labour whip and of the Council seat at the next Election. But even a brief, meteoric career can have some value and certainly greater value than a longer career of public conformity.

Where the left-wing is likely to get up against the national Labour Party as well as against the government, is if Labour controls the Council and the Labour group tries to pursue a left-wing policy. Undoubtedly, a left-wing council has scope for making many important improvements (i.e. improvements from the point of view of the working class) in the administration of the Council’s services, without having a fight to the finish on its hands. It can, for example improve the wages of the Council’s employees, make better provisions for old people, encourage cultural activities etc. But because the powers of councils are so restricted and are always subject to the overriding authority of the central government, any attempt to act in the interests of the working-class, on a matter of fundamental policy is bound to lead sooner or later, and probably sooner rather than later, to the alternatives of either running the system in the way the government wants or defying the government. Obviously all the legal weapons are in the government’s hands and a left-wing council has a chance of winning only if it is able to mobilise such mass support within its area and beyond it that it can force the government to capitulate. If it is unable or unwilling to do so, not only will the government win but quite likely the national Labour Party will take the opportunity of ‘re-organising’ the local party so as to prevent the recurrence of militancy.

The only two council issues in recent years that have looked like raising storms of sufficient dimensions have been the abandonment of Civil Defence and rents of council houses and flats. But in neither case has the necessary degree of support been forthcoming. The Labour councils concerned may have made tactical errors. But the fundamental reasons for their defeats have been the same as have kept the Tories in power for eleven years and have enabled the right-wing to sit firmly in the saddle at Transport House. It is difficult to get solid support for an all-out resistance to increases in rents when, on the one hand, the incidence of increases varies from one tenant to another and when sections of the working class are not directly affected because they are not tenants, and on the other when boom conditions and the relatively strong bargaining position of the trade unions may make it seem easier to meet increased rents by fighting for increased wages rather than by struggling directly on the rents, issue. But faced with a worsening economic situation workers may change their minds about this.

In any case, it is extremely important that the tradition of struggle within local councils should be maintained, in spite of all the limitations. The left cannot afford to neglect any sphere, whether of propaganda or of action, and so give a free hand, to the right and to the Tories.

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