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Raymond Challinor

Socialism at the Parish Pump

(Winter 1962)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.11, Winter 1962, pp.7-10.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Raymond Challinor, who lectures in Government, is the prospective parliamentary Labour candidate for Nantwich. Until last May, he was a councillor on the Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, and this article is written in the light of his experience there.

Local government is a bore. Among socialists to-day it arouses little interest. Self-satisfied councillors, indulging in squalid squabbles and, occasionally, petty corruption all seems remote from the real issues. And even remoter from the pioneering period of the labour movement when left and right-wingers alike saw local politics as an instrument for securing their ends. Symptomatic of the importance then attached to this sphere of activity is that in 1894 40 percent of all pamphlets issued by the Fabian Society dealt with local affairs. In contrast, at the present time serious socialist journals pay little attention to it; no article on local government has appeared in either International Socialism or New Left Review since their inception.

But, as usual, apathy gains its own rewards. The absence of sustained interest inside the labour movement, and informed socialist criticism, has enabled the Conservative Government to achieve its objectives without encountering extensive opposition. Not only has it achieved its aims, but, due to the absence of concerted criticism, much of the blame for unpopular measures has fallen not on the real culprits but on docile Labour councils.

The first important objective, pursued since the Tories returned to office in 1951, has been to increase the burden of rates. As can be seen from the following table, rates have risen out of all proportion to the cost of living, and the re-valuation of property, to be introduced in 1963, will probably further emphasize this tendency:–

Average rate levied per head of population in England and Wales

County Boroughs

£  7 16   2

£15 12   8

+ 100%

Metropolitan Boroughs

£16 4 11

£34   1 11

+ 110%

Non-County Boroughs

£  8   1 11

£16 14 11

+ 107%

Urban Districts

£  7   5   5

£14 18   0

+ 105%

(Source: IMTA Return of Rates)

Rates are a regressive form of taxation. A man with £10,000 a year will pay much more income tax than an average worker, but his rates are unlikely to be correspondingly greater. The poorer sections of the community – men with large families, old aged pensioners, etc. – are often exempt from paying income tax, but they still have to pay rates; whereas the exemption from rates goes to the rich industrialist and farmer. Consequently, to change the form of taxation, transferring the burden from income tax to the rates, has the effect of redistributing the national income in favour of the wealthy. This is precisely what the Tories have done: rates have gone up in the £ while income tax has gone down.

A second method the Conservatives employed to reinforce this incomes policy was by altering the method of local government finance. Under the Labour Government (1945-51), local authorities borrowed money to finance capital projects through the Public Works Loan Board, usually at a low rate of interest. However, in 1953 R.A. Butler forced local authorities on to the money market, and closed down the PWLB. This meant that councils had to borrow money, often at crippling rates of interest, because the Government introduced, from time to time, a ‘dear money’ policy. All told, in ten years, the Government altered the bank rats eighteen times, which automatically, via the money market, affected councils – creating uncertainty, a lack of continuity in municipal development and, most important, higher costs all round. A three-bedroom council house cost, after loan repayments, just over £3,000 in 1951, but because of interest charges the same house would cost £6,400 – an increase of 111 percent to-day.

Moreover, the situation is worsening. Local authorities, without other means of raising sufficient revenue for their requirements, are forced to become further indebted. Each year another £500 million is added; at present the amount outstanding is £6,000 million – the equivalent of £133 for every person in England and Wales. Interest payments have shot up from £81 million in 1950 to £289 million in 1960. Councillors, receiving public opprobrium for rising rates and rents, have become, in reality, the unpaid servants of the Government and City financiers, for whom they collect handsome sums of money. [1]

But to cause confusion among any potential opposition, dividing it and diverting attention from unjust Tory policy, the Government introduced the block grant system. Ministry spokesmen heralded this measure, saying it would give councils greater freedom; within broad limits, they could determine how they spent their revenue. In fact, the block grant curbed the expansion of enterprising local authorities, by curtailing Exchequer contributions, hitherto on a percentage basis, as well as intensifying the rivalry between committees for the limited funds available. Few councillors appear to have realised that this newly conferred ‘freedom’ was ‘freedom’ within the context of Tory financial policy, not a freedom to challenge it.

Local authorities are severely limited in the measures they can adopt against the Government. Being legally-created bodies, their powers are strictly laid down by law, which gives little room for manoeuvre. If they exceed their powers, individual members of the council render themselves liable to fines and imprisonment. For instance, in 1922 Poplar Borough Council, led by George Lansbury, refused to administer the then locally run unemployment relief in accordance with Government regulations. The council was prosecuted and 30 councillors jailed. By their courageous stand, Poplar aroused a national outcry against the Government, which forced it to amend its policy.

Local authorities can play an important role in national politics. But this, according to law, is not what they are supposed to do: local government should be concerned with local affairs; it is not its task to modify or alter national policy. When Poplar, three years after the unemployment row, decided to pay its employees a minimum wage of £4 a week, it led to a High Court action, where a judge ruled Poplar wrong since the question of whether a minimum wage was desirable was a national, not a local, issue. [2]

Similarly, in 1953, Birmingham Corporation decided to introduce free travel for old aged pensioners on its municipal bus service. But a Birmingham ratepayer took legal action. Although no statutory provisions prohibited the scheme, nevertheless the court ruled it illegal and ultra vires. The judge said that Birmingham’s proposed scheme amounted to subsidizing a particular class of people and that, on general principles, it was a matter which only Parliament could decide to do, and therefore outside the jurisdiction of any local authority. Birmingham appealed to Parliament, tried to get through a private Bill to authorise free transport for the aged, but failed. [3] Likewise local authorities are not allowed to extend municipal enterprise, unless Parliament has specifically sanctioned it. In a well-known case, Fulham Council, which has been authorised, under the Bath & Washhouse Acts (1846-78), to run a washhouse where people could clean their clothes, thought it would provide an extra service – that of actually washing the clothes – for a small extra charge, but this was ruled ultra vires. [4]

Not only is it rigorously laid down what a council is prohibited from doing, equally it is clearly stated what it is compelled to do. For example, in 1954 Coventry disbanded its Civil Defence, believing there to be no effective protection for the civilian population from nuclear war. But under the Civil Defence Acts, councils are obliged to have Civil Defence, it is a compulsory power, and therefore the Home Office stepped in, ran Coventry’s CD, and charged the city £50,000 for doing so.

Summing up the position in his book The Passing of Parliament, Professor G.W. Keeton says, the ‘expression of democratic freedom in local activity was in harmony with our long tradition of local government. Since then, however, the scene has been transformed ... Today, the elected councillor is to a substantial degree in the hands of his permanent officials. This is partly because the nature of their work has increased enormously in bulk and complexity with the steady extension of social legislation, and because the local officials themselves must work in close association with Whitehall, which not only exercises constant supervision over what they do, but also supplies much of the finance, on the fulfilment of specific conditions. The result is that the local councillor feels an increasing sense of frustration, and there has been in consequence, a progressive decline in local government, which directly corresponds with the increase of central control.’ (pp.190-1, my emphasis – RC)

A vast regiment of government inspectors, district auditors, and Whitehall bureaucrats exercise this central control; local authorities are hamstrung. As we have seen, the redistribution of income, albeit in a small, local way, is pronounced illegal; the extension of municipal ownership runs up against legal barriers; and so will most proposals with even a mildly progressive flavour. Local authorities must be-prepared either to be pliant tools of the capitalist state, carrying out its orders with complete obedience, or they must be prepared for a battle in which the state will use every weapon in its armoury.

For most Labour councils the decision is easily taken – they obey Whitehall. This harmonizes with the traditional principles of right-wing Labourism, content to work within the framework of British capitalism, to administer it and make piece-meal reforms. Socialist advocates of wholesale change, on the other hand, argue it is necessary for Labour to storm the commanding heights of the economy, to take industry into public ownership and to create a new, socialist state. From such a viewpoint, to administer capitalism, whether at national or local level, inevitably involves working in capitalist interests – and against those of the workers. The balance sheet of Labour councils – in other words, of so-called reformism – shows, at local levels, what are the likely consequences of accepting capitalism as an established fact and striving to do whatever can be done within that context. While Labour councils vary considerably, certain characteristics are fairly common:–

First, a lack of militancy and socialist spirit. Labour councillors, as a whole, are probably to the right of Hugh Gaitskell. During the South African boycott campaign the National Executive Committee asked all Labour councils to stop buying South African goods, but most Labour Groups just disregarded this request. Similarly, although the Labour Party’s policy nationally is in favour of comprehensive schools few Labour councils had the courage or conviction to implement this conference decision. [5]

Second, ostensibly the aim of reformism is to introduce reforms, but frequently it fails to achieve this objective. A failure of local authorities ‘to deliver the goods’ – to build better houses, roads and schools, etc. – is swelling the Titmuss-Galbraithian outcry of ‘private affluence, public squalor’. About slum clearance there is nothing revolutionary – many capitalist countries have swept away slums – yet in Britain, as a recent supplement in New Left Review shows, appalling conditions exist in many industrial towns. Many of these towns, significantly, have Labour councils. Of course, in the final analysis, the blame lies with the Tory Government, but many electors are not farsighted enough to see the last analysis. All they see is a Labour council doing nothing about the slums.

Third, many councillors are afflicted with an eye disease – council cretinism – which prevents them from seeing farther than the parish pump. They regard things in local terms, do not see their national implications, and therefore do not unite with other authorities to bring pressure on the Government over such issues as slum clearance. Instead of treating each other as brothers-in-arms, far too frequently a Labour group in the authority will look with hostility and suspicion on its neighbours. Some years ago Staffordshire County Council and Dudley Corporation – both Labour controlled – spent £50,000 in legal fees battling over a small strip of land. ‘They won’t get an inch of our county,’ said the Staffs CC chairman. After this unedifying spectacle, ‘our county’ went Tory at the next elections.

Fourth, as they are not going to contest elections on socialist principles, Labour candidates tend to project their general qualities – initiative, enterprise, powers of management, public benevolence, etc. But Labour representatives are unlikely to have a monopoly of these qualities. Indeed, Tory councillors, usually recruited from among small businessmen, managers, and professional classes, may have to use initiative, enterprise, powers of management, etc., during their daytime employment, and consequently may, in these qualities, claim to possess them to a greater extent than Labour councillors. In any case, the electorate may feel, if it is merely a question of administering capitalism, then it would be better, and more natural, to have capitalist representatives in charge.

Fifth, because of the political behaviour of Labour councillors, in local elections few important issues emerge and a smaller percentage vote than at General Elections. Not putting forward a clear class position, even to the degree it does at parliamentary elections, Labour fails to mobilise potential voters; too many think there is little to choose between respective candidates. And, consequently, Labour gains a smaller proportion of the seats in local than in national elections.

Further, the behaviour of Labour councillors, far from bringing credit on themselves, may reflect adversely on the party as a whole. In his speech to the 1959 annual conference, Hugh Gaitskell cited, as a contributory cause for Labour’s defeat at the General Elections, the actions of some Labour councils. [6]

The foregoing analysis, I think, shows the bankruptcy of so-called reformism in local government. It fails to mobilise the people against the Tory Government; it fails to protect them from the reactionary measures of the central government; and it even fails to achieve reforms. At the lowest level, it hardly acts as a good electoral advert for the Party.

What should socialists do then? A left-winger is sometimes confronted with the opportunity of becoming a councillor. Should he? I think this cannot be answered in a general fashion. It all depends on the level of socialist consciousness in the area, the amount of his time that would be devoted to trivial, administrative detail, and the gags that might be imposed to stop him putting forward socialist ideas in the council chamber.

Certain general principles can, however, be enunciated:–

  1. The council chamber should be used as a forum for expressing socialist ideas. National questions are often lost on the public; they gain a better idea when put in local terms. ‘Truth is concrete,’ Hegel once said. Instead of talking abstractly about land speculators, it has a greater impact if you can say about a landlord everyone knows, ‘Lord A, who bought this land for a song, is selling it to the Corporation for £X pounds, and it will mean an increase in your rates.’ Also, more attention is paid when the interest burden is put forward in terms of how much we in Little Twiddlecombe have to pay per head each year to these so-and-soes. Further, the futility of civil defence can best be shown in local terms : for example, Newcastle-under-Lyme, population 74,000, has 8 blankets, one ambulance, one geiger counter. So let the Russians do their worst – we’re alright, Jack!
  2. Socialist ideas should lead to socialist practice. Labour councils should be made the bastions of revolt, carrying out an uncompromising struggle against the Tories. They should let no impediment stand in their way. In the past, the trouble has been that the majority of councils have been dull and apathetic, while a small minority of councils have been left-wing. The left-wing councils have been carried away by their enthusiasm, not related their mode of criticism to the level of consciousness of their supporters, and, as a result, isolated themselves – and plunged into defeat.
  3. Perhaps the best corrective to ultra-left secretarianism (of the type indulged in by St. Pancras Council during its Lawrence period) is to try to get some cohesion, some co-operation, between left-wing councillors throughout the country. The discussion of mutual problems; the co-ordination of activities; possibly, the publication of an occasional symposium. All these could help to break down isolation and increase socialist efficiency.

But it should not be thought that the task is easy. Councils in Britain have never had a reputation for being left, and any socialist who becomes a member of one of them must be prepared to swim against the current. Even so, it sometimes gives socialists a forum for expressing their ideas and a greater local influence than they have hitherto possessed.


1. The Radcliffe Commission, published in 1959, expressed concern over the rise of short-term local authority indebtedness – £512 million in 1958, an increase of £342 million compared with three years previously. Often it puts councils at the mercy of foreign speculators, who provide the money, which can be withdrawn from the country at short notice.

2. Roberts v. Hopwood (1925) AC 578.

3. Prescott v. Birmingham Corporation (1954) 3 WLR.

4. Attorney-General v. Fulham Corporation (1921) 1 Ch. 440.

5. Please see note 7 at below.

6. Special note, for Mr George Brown: in his speech Mr Gaitskell made particular mention of the disciplinings, expellings, and expulsions, in which some Labour Groups indulge. He said it gave the Party an image of intolerance that was an electoral liability. Mr Brown, I am sure, would not like to commit the same blunder on a national scale as Labour Groups have done at a merely local level!

7. Interestingly, Georg Lux in his article on The Decline of German Socialism (International Socialism, Spring 1962) describes how local government exercised a right-wing pull on the German Social Democratic Party. At the end of the last war it was quite left wing until the Occupying Powers allowed it to dabble in local affairs: ‘They (i.e., the SPD – RC) were content to have the lower levels of administration, the towns and provinces, left to them. When the officials took up these positions their revolutionary desires soon pooled. In the local councils they played at party politics in the manner of the 19th century.’

Lux also says that the pressure to strip the SPD’s programme of all socialist content – the infamous Bad Godesburg programme that rejected all forms of nationalisation – ‘was led in particular by Land and local government councillors and officials, as well as a section of the parliamentary party.’

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