The departure of Chris Williamson as a shadow minister has been explained by Williamson and others around the Labour leadership as either a conflict over principle or the removal of a maverick left-winger.
It is true that Williamson has spoken out on other issues outside his brief as Shadow Fire Minister, in his weekly online videos. Most recently he advocated rises in council tax for more expensive homes.
At the same time he has been the member of the Shadow Cabinet most comfortable with defending the Maduro government of Venezuela, with defending Cuba and some of Labour’s activists who are hostile to the existence of Israel. He also played a rather more conservative role in the long-running dispute between Teaching Assistants and the Derby counci of whicl he is a former leader. It is notable that his proposals on raising council tax do not mention the TAs.
Given this, it is disappointing that the final straw triggering Williamson’s departure appears to have been the call for a doubling of council tax on valuable homes as a way to combat local government cuts, something that is not currently Labour Party policy. Regardless of the merits of the policy, it represents an attempt to put forward some sort of policy on the cuts and something which has been missing since “Corbynism” started.
Williamson now says: “I decided to stand down to give me that freedom to feed the fire which keeps the establishment on their toes.” Undoubtedly being in the Shadow Cabinet would have tied him to the collective discipline that he felt held him back.
It seems the Labour right see Williamson’s departure as the start of a more sensible shadow cabinet. Clive Lewis has been appointed as his replacement; Lewis was also a rebel on Article 50, and is known to favour the replacement of Trident.
The tactic of raising council tax is very much open to debate. It is right that councils need to find a way to claw back funds, cut from central government since 2010.
A joined-up campaign between councils, affiliated local government unions, and the national party and wider movement to call for the restoration of these funds would be the starting point to do this.
Williamson is absolutely right to say, “After eight years of austerity, the argument that cuts are the responsibility of central government is wearing thin with the electorate. Following the enthusiasm with which the public embraced Labour’s redistributive 2017 manifesto, now is the time to start translating that ethos into Labour in local government.”
He uses the example of his own constituency in Derby North to illustrate austerity. Local library closures have convinced him that now is the time for a more radical approach.
“A local authority could for example propose to double council tax and then promise full discounts to those living in band A to C, followed by an 80 per cent discount to those in band D (in effect a 20 per cent increase), 60 per cent discount for Band E, 40 per cent for Band F, 20 per cent for Band G, with only those living in band H properties paying double.”
Williamson goes on to argue for a means-tested system of support for those on low incomes in higher-banded homes and that such a policy could therefore be won in the referendum which would be used to vote it in.
The Tory’s plan to stop all central government funding by 2020 would mean this is just a stop gap measure, but it is one that would buy time and allow extra investment where it is needed.
Williamson goes on to site the radical Labour leadership of councils like Lambeth in the 1980s which increased rates when they were able to, in order to combat the Tory cuts. As with the rates increase, without a coordinated fightback against the government, the raising of council tax will still put pressure on households in areas like London and the South East where the number of Band A properties is relatively low, even taking the rise in values into account since 1993.
In a referendum, where a full explanation of the policy of means testing would not be not on the ballot paper, support is unlikely. The policy will be seen as a vote to raise the level of council tax, something which, in a time of wage stagnation, benefit cuts and increasing household debt, would be very difficult to win, and for good reason.
This policy idea deserves discussion but fundamentally the refusal of Labour councils to build and support anti-cuts campaigns since 2010 has been a major failing. Too many councils have not just implemented Tory cuts but have done it with some glee and often gone deeper and further then they had to!
Labour councils must coordinate with local campaigns, call for support from the labour movement and the national party to begin a genuine fight to reverse the cuts and fight for decent services.