#78 - Local councils - from rebellion to big business

February 2007


For a very long time, local government has been, by very far, the largest single provider of public services to the working class, as well as the country's largest single employer. And despite the massive cuts and privatisation of the past three decades, not much has changed in this respect. Many services have been rolled back over this period, but they have often remained in some shape or form. Instead of being direct providers of these services to the working class, the role of local authorities has been increasingly to purchase them from the private sector on behalf of final "customers" or "clients" - to use the commercial jargon which is now standard.

In and of itself, this does not constitute a qualitative change. One of the primary functions of local government has always been, like for many other institutions of the state machinery of the capitalist class, to channel public funds into the coffers of private companies, big and small. This function has been implemented in different ways and on different scales at different times. But the function itself was always there. What we are seeing today is merely yet another way of doing the same thing - only more arrogantly and more cynically - and in line with the entire policy of the capitalist class, at a time where its confidence has reached a record high due to the low level of resistance it has to face. Besides, despite all the hot air about the wonders of "private enterprise", the truth is that British capital has never been more parasitic on the state, the population and, more specifically on the working class, than it is today.

It is, of course, an illusion to believe that what politicians call the "community" - as if there was no such thing as class divisions! - is "empowered" through local government. Contrary to what all the main parties claim and, particularly Labour, local has never meant democratic in this society. The real powers of an individual councillor are virtually nil, that is unless he or she is part of the council's ruling clique. This ruling clique is usually closely connected with local businesses - if only, because it depends on them for many of the council's functions. Whatever its political label, the council's ruling group is keen to protect the interests of the companies with which it has contracts. To all intents and purposes, this is an implicit clause of these contracts, and even, sometimes, a very explicit one. And, of course, this cannot fit in too well with the interests of working people. In reality, if anyone is "empowered" by local government institutions, it is primarily the local small capitalists and, in the case of the bigger towns, the big companies.

Councils' ruling majorities may come and go. But their permanent functionaries remain and they are the ones who are really in charge of the day-to-day running of things - not the low-paid council workers, of course, but the chief executives and other highly-paid council officials, who come out of the same mould as the top civil servants in central government, when they do not come straight out of the business world. Officially they are said to be neutral. In fact, they are cogs in a state machinery whose main purpose is to protect the interests of the capitalist class.

And, if by any chance, despite all of this, the ruling majority of a council has the guts to defy government policy in the name of the interests of its constituents, ministers have every means to cut it down to size. No council can run its business against the government of the day, at least not within the boundaries of the law.

Is it therefore any wonder if local elections have attracted very low turnouts for such a long time? Because this is by no means a recent phenomenon. The same moralistic condemnations by politicians of what they call "voters' apathy" could be heard in the 1950s and 60s from both Tory and Labour.

This does not mean, of course, that the working class can only be an impotent hostage of local institutions. There are fortunately cases in the history of the working class movement, in which a local mobilisation, with or without the support of local councillors, has succeeded in forcing the government of the time to give in. The main obstacle to this, however, has usually been the reluctance of the parties which were meant to represent working class interests to rock the boat of these institutions in which they are so comfortably entrenched.

Of Kings and burghers

The development of local government into a well-oiled machinery capable of satisfying the greed and needs of capital was a very long process, which spanned over several centuries. While it is not within the scope of this forum to retrace this process in detail, it is worth outlining some of its main stages.

The emergence of municipalities as institutions of urban self-government goes back to the emergence of the towns themselves, in the Middle Ages. For the burghers - merchants, artisans, professionals, etc. - who formed the wealthy elite of these towns, self-government was a means of protecting themselves from the greed of the aristocrats and monarch, which resulted in heavy taxes and multiple constraints being imposed on their businesses.

It was thus that, throughout Europe, some of the major towns emerged in the midst of medieval society, not just as economic powers but as political ones. Their populations led by the local merchants, fought often bitter battles - including by military means - in order to extract from the monarch some sort of autonomous status, usually in the form of a Royal charter. Such chartered towns already existed along the shores of the Baltic sea, in today's northern Germany and Poland, as early as the 13th century. Subsequently, with the development of trade, they multiplied in today's Netherlands, Belgium, France and Switzerland, in particular.

For all sorts of reasons, linked to the comparatively late appearance of the British bourgeoisie and its indebtedness to the monarchy as a result of the Reformation, the aspiration to self-government in English towns manifested itself later than in Continental Europe and took on far less bitter forms. However, by the middle of the 18th century, some form of municipal organisation had taken shape, at least in some of the main English towns. Because while towns such as Nottingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and, of course, London, had municipal institutions, known as Corporations, this was still not the case, for instance, of Birmingham and Manchester, despite the fact that both were actually larger than Nottingham.

Contrary to what had already been happening in Continental Europe for a long time, where, at least, guild members elected their representatives to the town councils - still meaning, of course, that the vast majority of the population was disenfranchised - the English Corporations were mostly co-opted by the richest families. In fact, more often than not, the handful of richest families not only appointed the councillors, but also occupied the few lucrative positions of municipal functionaries. It was even commonplace for them to use religious discrimination as a pretext to keep out potential contenders.

The level of services provided by these Corporations was usually minimal. Few bothered with sewers or systematic street maintenance. As to street lightning, with the notable exception of Liverpool, it was usually considered that it was up to each householder to maintain a gas lamp above his own front door.

To all intents and purposes, the Corporations had two main functions. One was to maintain a police force capable of protecting the private property of the wealthy against the potential danger of rioting "mobs". And such riots often happened given, for instance, the merchants' common practice of hoarding staple food in order to push prices up, thereby threatening a whole section of the population with starvation. Their other function was to keep the burghers' taxes as low as possible, to protect them from the greed of the monarchy and, by the same token, to use these taxes to line the pockets of the ruling families. Only in isolated cases, like Liverpool and Bristol, for instance, where sea merchants had particular needs, did the Corporations undertake any substantial urban development.

Shaping the towns for the propertied classes

By the mid-19th century, the British capitalist class, by then in full development, was beginning to see things in quite a different light. The rapid development of industry and trade had resulted in a sharp increase of the urban population, which the hated Corporations were finding increasingly difficult to police. The urban propertied classes had expanded and were crying for more political rights. The traditionally corrupt municipal system was threatening to cause more trouble than it was worth. This led to the 1832 municipal reform, which was implemented first in Scotland and then, in 1835, in England and Wales. Its main purpose was clearly political. It replaced the old Corporations with a system of town and borough councils, which were to be elected by all propertied classes, without exclusions, religious or otherwise - although, of course, women were still disqualified.

However, the central government had no intention of giving new legal powers to these municipal bodies. Their role was to be confined to policing the population and managing municipal properties. Anything beyond that was to be authorised on a case by case basis for each town, by going through the lengthy process of securing an Act of Parliament.

Soon, however, the running of local municipal services for water, gas and lightning became the norm. But then, this was meeting the wishes of businesses. However, when it came to social duties, the government was not keen to hand them over to the new councils, nor were the latter keen to take responsibility for them anyway.

So, for instance, the administration of the 1834 Poor Law, which was passed at the same time as the municipal reform was being implemented, was entrusted to special Poor Law commissioners, organised along the lines of parish unions, who were independent from the new councils and came directly under the authority of Parliament. Obviously, Westminster did not trust the newly-elected bodies to enforce the vicious repression of the Poor Law on the jobless and poorest. And each time ministers decided to introduce new social tasks at local level, they usually started by creating ad hoc bodies independent from the local councils before even considering entrusting the councils with these tasks.

By the 1870s, however, partly due to a campaign of social reformers and partly due to the explosive increase of the urban population, the statutory duties of local councils had been hugely extended. In 1848 they had become responsible for local sanitory conditions. Subsequently they were given the powers to carry out slum clearances, although this probably had less to do with the welfare of slum dwellers, than with the wishes of the propertied classes to push the poorest out of the inner-cities, where property development was most profitable.

Although local councils as such, still had no role in education, in 1870, local School Boards were set up to create non-denominational schools to fill the gaps left by the voluntary organisations. It is worth noting that by that time, London already enforced a "payment by results" system, whereby school grants were cut if they did not meet certain targets. The only difference with today was that these targets were set in terms of pupil attendance only.

By the end of this period, the result of these successive reforms was a bewildering system of bodies whose responsibilities and territorial jurisdictions were tightly intertwined, together with a heavy and largely inefficient system of inspectorates. With time, the whole system was becoming increasingly unworkable.

The emergence of modern local government

The purpose of the 1888 municipal reform was to sort out this mess. But because it was conceived in such a way as to preserve all kinds of vested interests, it was a total failure in this respect.

It divided England into 48 counties, each of which were in turn sub-divided into rural, urban and municipal districts. The county held responsibility for all major local government powers. The districts' main responsibility was housing. Outside the municipal districts, which covered towns, the counties were directly responsible for most local services. Meanwhile, in rural areas, parishes remained nominally in place as administrative units, but their jurisdiction was limited to managing burial grounds and public parks.

This created a 3-tier system, within which the 79 largest towns stood apart from the rest. Indeed, each of these towns had its own borough county, which was independent from the counties in which they happened to be included. As a result, the counties were, as it were, deprived of their most industrialised and urbanised areas - which also happened, usually, to be the most profitable part in terms of potential rates payments.

Predictably, this system, which was really designed to keep the country's local structures in the hands of landowners and beyond the reach of the more reforming urban middle-class, led to endless conflicts between county councils and borough councils. As the towns' populations and industrial activity increased, so did the area inhabited by those working within their territory. Quite logically the town councils requested boundary changes at the expense of the surrounding county, which led to protracted and often bitter legal battles.

Just as predictably, this complicated structure impeded the development of the integrated plans which would have been needed to improve roads, sewers and, in fact, most local services. This combination of paralysis and artificial boundaries which defied most people's understanding, also deprived the new municipal structures of their initial credit among voters. So that within a few years only of the reform, turnout at local elections dropped to abysmal levels, sometimes under the 20% mark.

Nevertheless, it was this structure which was to be kept, with various cosmetic changes, for nearly a whole century.

The first age of "municipal socialism"

This does not mean, however, that the new municipal structures achieved absolutely nothing. The borough counties, in particular, were well equipped to implement some of the reformers' proposals.

As a result, this period gave birth to an ideological current, which re-emerged many decades later, under the name of "municipal socialism". One of its main proponents at the time was Sidney Webb, then leading figure of the Fabian Society. In his book "Socialism in England", published in 189Os, Webb enthused as follows:

"It is not only in matters of sanitation that this 'Municipal Socialism" is progressing. Nearly half the consumers of the Kingdom already consume gas made by themselves as citizens collectively, in 168 different localities, as many as 14 local authorities obtained the power to borrow money to engage in the gas industry in a single year. Water supply is rapidly coming to be universally a matter of public provision, no fewer than 71 separate governing bodies obtaining loans for this purpose in the year 1885-86 alone. The prevailing tendency is for the municipalities to absorb also the tramway industry, 31 localities already owning their own lines, comprising a quarter of the mileage in the Kingdom.

Webb's enthusiasm was, in fact, not so much for "municipal socialism" than for what could be called "state socialism" - i.e. reforms initiated from high spheres by the institutions of the state, without the intervention of the working masses. However, it was one thing to note, and this was a mere statement of fact, that the capitalist system itself was introducing forms of production and distribution which were in contradiction with the very basis on which capitalist society is built. But it was quite another to claim as a result that, by winning the majority in the legislative institutions of the state, at local and central level, its class nature could be changed.

Yet this was the main argument behind Webb's "municipal and state socialism" and, indeed, the substance of the policies of what was soon to emerge as the Labour party. Indeed, while local council seats became the basis of Labour's social weight for generations, few among its most prominent members proved prepared to use this platform in order to mobilise workers against the diktats of the capitalists and their state.

The Poplar rebellion

Fortunately, there were exceptions to this reformist-come-legalistic stance. George Lansbury's fight in Poplar is probably the best-known among these. And it is worth recalling, if only by way of comparison with the subsequent fight waged much later by the Labour left in local councils.

Lansbury was by no means a militant, nor even what one would call a left-winger today. He was probably more Christian than socialist. But having been a Poor Law Guardian for many years while fighting strenuously against the workhouse and for its replacement with the payment of outdoor relief, he had certainly proved that he was willing to stick his neck out to defend the interests of the poorest.

After World War I, Labour won the East London borough of Poplar and Lansbury became the first Labour Lord Mayor of the borough. This was a period of economic depression after the wartime industrial boom and tens of thousands of soldiers were returning to their homes in East London without a chance in hell of finding a job. To make matters worse, housing in Poplar was squalid and the numbers of those seeking help was rising exponentially.

Official policy, of course, was to refuse outdoor relief payments to able-bodied men, no matter what. But since, for once, he was in a position to put into practice the ideas he had been defending for two decades, Lansbury did not hesitate. He won over the rest of the council and the Labour-controlled Board of Guardians to a policy of using their resources to meet the need for outdoor relief as much as practicable. Within six months of coming into office, expenditure on outdoor relief had doubled. Poplar's finances were at risk unless it imposed a rate increase on its constituents. But doing so would have meant penalising the poorest among ratepayers, which was deemed unacceptable by Lansbury and his co-councillors.

However, there was another possible choice, which involved challenging the very foundations of the tax system which funded London-wide services such as the London County Council, Metropolitan Police, Water Board, etc.. Indeed, Poplar's contribution was the same as that paid by the borough of Westminster, despite the fact that Westminster's rate income was 8 times that of Poplar. This meant that the poor boroughs were financing part of the London-wide services for the rich boroughs, but the latter were not paying a penny towards the social problems faced by the poor boroughs. So it was decided that Poplar's council would no longer collect the part of the rate designed to pay for London-wide services, until this scandalous arrangement was changed.

Immediate hostility came from the Labour party leadership. Herbert Morrison, then secretary of the London Labour party and Mayor of Hackney, opposed Poplar's stance, arguing that it would damage Labour's image. Bethnal Green, whose Mayor was a Labour party member, but a supporter of the Communist Party proposed to follow the example set by Poplar, and so did the Mayor of Stepney, Clement Attlee.

The government lost no time. Poplar's 30 councillors were arrested and jailed. But their arrests sparked off a mobilisation of the borough's population. Thousands joined the borough's Tenants Reform League, pledging to wage a rent strike in support of the jailed councillors and their demands. Frequent protests were held outside Brixton and Holloway prisons, where the councillors were awaiting trial.

Finally, faced with increasingly alarming reports of rising temper in the East End, the government preferred to back off. Six weeks after their arrest the councillors were freed without charge and a new bill was drafted which met Poplar's demands. Lansbury had won thanks to his determination and that of his fellow councillors but, above all, thanks to the mobilisation of Poplar's working class.

The post-war period to the 1970s

WW2 brought a number of changes to local politics and government, but not as many as might have been expected, since the multiple tiers, and thousands of small and large elected committees remained, even though their size and powers often bore no relation to the number of people they represented or their needs.

However, for the first time the local franchise was extended on the same basis as the vote for parliamentary elections, including non-rate-payers.

As a result, local election results were increasingly used as a barometer for the national political mood, and of course they were fought on a party political basis. However, drawing too many conclusions as to the political mood of the population on the basis of local elections had its limitations, thanks to the so-called triennial system of electing councillors to borough and district councils. This system meant that only one third of the seats were fought for each year, but that was quite a lot - 3,500 up to 1964 and after that between 3,000 and 3,200 when London's structures were re-organised. That said, it was not until 1965 that proper statistics were available for analysis and in fact up to today, comparative figures are not published in an accessible form for the layperson!

What was notable about the post-war Labour Cabinet was that 3 former councillors were among its senior members, Clement Atlee who became prime minister, Herbert Morrison, and Aneurin Bevan who was to introduce the National Health Service. In fact becoming a local councillor was the usual first step on the ladder to parliament for many aspiring politicians - and it still is today.

Labour's victory in the 1945 general election was also reflected at local level, when Labour won a majority of the municipal elections, doing particularly well in the large working class cities, like Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle, Bradford and Leeds. On the other hand due to a split in the local Labour Party, Liverpool Council remained in Tory hands until 1963, returned to the Tories in 1967 and was only held by Labour after 1983, until losing it to the Lib-Dems in 1998.

Despite the inception of the welfare state, the period of 1945 to 1975 was actually one of decline in the powers and responsibilities of local government, thanks to the nationalisations of utilities and to the centralisation of health and social security, which now came directly under Whitehall.

They shrank in size and grew in spending

Local councils immediately lost control of the public utilities like gas and electricity and then also lost control over hospitals and the responsibility for assistance payments to the poor. In fact it was only in 1946 that the "Poor Law" was finally abolished, with the introduction of the National Assistance Act. That said, this Act obliged councils to provide what is now referred to as "personal" social services, that is, helping the disabled, frail and elderly with their daily needs and taking care of the spectrum of socially vulnerable people. Water supply was retained locally until 1970. However vital functions like the provision of housing and also the provision of education, remained under local control, and their budgets were increased substantially, which meant that councillors had huge sums of money at their disposal. For one thing, the bombing of WW2 had left more than 2m homes damaged or destroyed, 60% of them in London and these had to be rebuilt. In fact the 30 post-war years are often referred to as the years of greatest affluence of local government.

In real terms, local government spending trebled during this period. In 1945 the aggregate expenditure of local government was as much as 58% of GDP - and by 1975 it had crept up from its own "low mark" of 32% in 1955, to almost 50% again in 1975. But it was never enough to tackle need, especially when it came to housing, as the 1966 film by Ken Loach called "Cathy come home"exposed so movingly. More importantly, the financial dependence of local government on the Treasury grew. The percentage of its income from central government grants rose from 30 to 45%.

However, during this period, the control of ministers over the policies and the spending of local councils was limited to that of advising and directing, rather than prescribing. So for instance when Cardiff Council refused to abolish all-age schools, the Ministry did not interfere.

Of course, the building of council housing, which reached its peak in 1967, above all fuelled the growth and profits of the private building companies which were offered tenders for all the contracts. Among these were companies like John Laing, which is now Britain's biggest construction group, Holland and Hannan and Cubitts, which built the Downham Estate in Lewisham, a huge company in its day which was eventually acquired by Tarmac, and John MacLean and Sons, also acquired by Tarmac. Companies like John Laing and Tarmac are among the principle beneficiaries today of many lucrative government contracts, these days, of course via PFI. So is Taylor Woodrow, which built Ronan Point in 1960s, the tower block which collapsed in east London, killing 9 people.

However, there was then, as now, considerable scope for all kinds of corruption and graft, as regards planning permission and the allocation of contracts for construction and refurbishment, allowing some councillors and their friends to take kick-backs and even to get filthy rich.

"Mr Newcastle" & Co

The case of T Dan Smith who became chair of Housing in Labour-controlled Newcastle in 1958 was only the most notorious, but by no means an exception.

Smith, who in his younger days had first been a member of the Independent Labour Party, then briefly of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party, and had even led a shipyard strike, joined the Labour Party, like many others, in 1945. He became leader of Newcastle Council in 1960 and claimed he would turn Newcastle into the "Brasilia of the North" by regenerating its housing.

In fact he regenerated his own bank balance and the bank balances of his cronies, among them John Poulson, a self-styled, but unqualified architect, who owned a number of building companies. The way it worked was that Smith appointed councillors as paid "consultants" to his various "public relations" firms. If one of them was exposed, Smith kept himself in the clear by saying that he assumed they would declare their interest - that is, that they were on his payroll, and that their misconduct had nothing to do with him. But Smith also had his own painting and decorating firm, which received more than half of the contracts for council housing, while he ensured that Poulson got the contracts for much of new housing development in the North-east, through his Party contacts, helping turn Poulson into a millionaire, while carefully keeping his own nose clean in Newcastle. One such contact was Andy Cunningham, a senior GMB and Labour Party official in Durham County, and Cunningham arranged for Poulson to build some of the largest residential council blocks in his home town.

In 1966, Poulson decided he needed even better connections in high places and appointed the Tory shadow home secretary Reginald Maudling as director of one of his companies, also providing a job for Maudling's son. As for Smith, his PR firm had in the meantime got involved with a redevelopment scheme in Wandsworth. When his contact there came under suspicion in 1971, and was taken to court, Smith was charged with bribery. He was in fact acquitted, although he had to resign his political offices. It was only when Poulson went into bankruptcy in 1972, that the whole affair was exposed, largely thanks to the investigative journalism of Paul Foot, then writing for Private Eye. In 1974, T Dan Smith was jailed for 6 years for accepting bribes; Poulson was jailed for 7 years for fraud, Cunningham was also jailed, but Maudling merely had to resign his political position. That said, when released, Smith went home to "Millionaires Row" in Newcastle and his Rolls Royce with customised plates.

"Reforms" which can't change a thing

In 1958 a major change was made in central government's financing of local government, when a ceiling was placed on what the Treasury would hand out, although, at the same time, councils were now given more freedom to decide where to spend the money, rather than have it earmarked for specific projects by Whitehall in advance.

But long before this, the need to reform the hotch-potch and anachronistic structure of the 1,500 local government bodies, consisting of county councils, metropolitan or urban councils, district councils and parish councils, became obvious. Some authorities proved far too small on their own to provide effective services. The sheer number of authorities at local level caused public confusion. The fragmentation of responsibility for service provision caused major problems. For instance county councils were responsible for providing personal social services, including for the homeless. But they had no authority over the building of houses or the allocation of housing, which was the responsibility of the smaller district councils.

A series of enquiries were set up in the 1960s like the Seebohm Committee, which found the provision of social services "irrelevant to people's problems" As a result, in 1970, a single social services department was established in each local authority.

Structural change was, however, first implemented in London in 1963, with the creation of a new 2-tier structure, replacing the old London County Council with a larger, Greater London Council (GLC) and 32 London borough councils, as well as retaining, in addition, the 700-year old City of London Corporation. This has been left intact under every single reform up until today, and its Common Council is a legislative assembly in its own right, with its own Mayor and Court of Aldermen, elected mainly from among the City's high fliers. It has its own police force. Ludicrously the Corporation boasts that it is uniquely "non-party political" - and of course it has ancient sources of funding which are also quite unique, though 58% of it's income is still made up through a revenue support grant from the government!

The 33 boroughs were allocated responsibility for the bulk of services - housing, social services, local roads, refuse collection and libraries, while the GLC was in charge of the fire service, ambulances, the main roads, and refuse disposal.

Education was a problem though, since the old LCC had established a good reputation in building up the school system in London. As a result, the new GLC retained responsibility via the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) for the 12 inner London Boroughs presided over by 12 elected councillors.

In 1966, the Redcliffe-Maude Royal Commission was set up to propose structural change for the rest of England, while separate commissions were to report on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Ironically, one of the "commissioners was T Dan Smith.

Redcliffe-Maude argued that "Whether an authority is resolving people's housing problems, setting the pattern of schools or colleges, or providing personal services for families and individuals in need of care and help, it is more likely to meet people's requirements and make the most effective use of resources if its responsibility extends over the whole area that includes people's homes, the offices and factories they work in, the schools where their children are taught, the shops where they buy their goods and the places they go for entertainment and recreation."

t argued therefore, that "Each local authority should be responsible for a continuous area that makes , so far as practicable a coherent social and economic whole." While there were differences among the members of the commission, the majority proposed a single tier of local government with all-purpose unitary authorities which brought together town and country.

However this common sense reform was opposed by vested political interests. The political parties feared the electoral consequences and loss of positions. Local councillors were only in favour of merging urban and rural councils as long as it didn't entail the loss of their own seats.

That said default powers were always held in the hands of minsters to use against maverick councils and councillors if need be. This happened for instance, in 1972, when Clay Cross Urban District Council in Derbyshire refused to observe the new Housing Finance Act which would have obliged it to raise rents. 11 councillors were disqualified from office as a result and a commissioner from central government was appointed to supervise the rent collection. The then Conservative government imposed a surcharge on these councillors amounting to £63,000 for the money lost through the Act not being implemented. The personal surcharge was only abolished in the Local Government Act of 2000.

Structural reforms revisited ...and implemented

While everyone was agreed that local government structures with their multiple tiers and overlapping and often antagonistic functions, were a dog's breakfast, whenever reforms were recommended and even implemented, this was always done in such a way that the Pedigree Chum in the dog's dish looked almost exactly the same.

However, Heath's Conservative government was determined to simplify and therefore also cheapen local government. But he opted for a 2-tier system for England and Wales based on the existing counties, since the bulk of county councils were dominated by his party, rather than creating unitary authorities. That the parish councils were left intact as a largely irrelevant third tier, does not signify much, because their powers were so minimal anyway - but this was certainly an expression of the political preoccupations underlying this reform.

So, from 1974 the Local Government Act - passed in 1972 - abolished all county boroughs and reduced the 58 county councils in England and Wales to 47. Within the counties, 1,250 municipal boroughs were merged into 333 district councils. Six metropolitan county councils were created, for Greater Manchester, Merseyside, West Midlands, Tyne and Wear, and South and West Yorkshire as well as 36 metropolitan district councils. This was of, course, anything but simple! But then again, it did take care of vested political interests!

Outside of the 6 metropolitan areas, the former county borough councils which were mostly Labour strongholds, were absorbed as district councils into the new counties. The mainly Conservative-controlled county councils now took over responsibility for education and social services.

So in fact the two main tiers remained and continued to make planning and co-ordination of services extremely difficult, and of course competing political interests continued to take their toll.

It wasn't just the gravediggers

It was in the mid-1970s, with the inflationary crisis, that the independence of local government spending came seriously under attack, with the implementation of the then Labour government's severe public expenditure cuts.

Of course, at the time, it was allpublic expenditure which was meant to be reduced. The 5% pay ceiling instituted by Callaghan's Labour government and agreed by the TUC, resulted in the biggest strike wave seen for many years, which became known as "the Winter of Discontent".

What most people remember about the strikes of 1978/9 are the piles of rubbish which mounted up on the streets and that the gravediggers of Liverpool and Tameside councils refused to bury the dead.

In fact local councils, responsible for "bins, bogs and burials", had been cutting their workforces and freezing wages under Wilson and his chancellor, Denis Healey's "social contract" since 1974. And this was merely a continuation of the Heath government's wage restraint. Wilson's deal was agreed by TUC leaders under the pretence that social expenditure would be maintained, but of course the real intention was to ensure that in this time of economic crisis, the profits of the City would be boosted.

In fact not only did all workers find that their wages fell drastically compared to prices, but now jobs were being cut on an unprecedented scale, while the local and central welfare state was rolled back, causing increasing homelessness and a bed crisis in the NHS.

Education was the first target of the Treasury's cuts. Only a few years before school leaving age had been increased from 14 years to 16 and a big expansion in education was expected. But in fact the number of pupils staying on in school actually fell, as local government funding resulted in oversized classes, underfunded curricula and crumbling schools due to lack of maintenance. Social housing fell victim to ruthless cuts. Between 1975-6 planning applications were cut by 50% compared to 1973. In 1976, there were 100,000 homeless, yet real spending on housing was cut again. By this time social expenditure had been cut back by £900m, resulting in 20,000 public sector job cuts. Essex county council, which employed 55,000 workers for instance, announced a deficit in budgeted spending of £9.5m in 1977, and 2,180 job cuts, of which over half would be made by compulsory redundancy. Most councils had already been operating a policy of not filling vacancies and freezing manning levels.

By the late 1970s, just to keep up with inflation even the better paid workers would have needed wage increases of at least 20%, but instead the working class was told by union leaders it had to tighten its belt still further and accept the 5% pay ceiling.

In November 1977, firemen under the employ of county councils, came out on strike for a 30% wage increase and stayed out for 8 weeks. A state of emergency was declared and the army took over with its WW2 "green goddess" fire engines. The firemen were eventually forced back to work. The following year, truck drivers went on all-out strike and this was followed with strikes by local government workers - the grave diggers, the water and sewage workers and refuse collectors. It meant that more workers were on strike than at any time in nearly a decade and in fact the one day strike staged by the public sector unions in January 1979 brought more workers to the streets than at any time since 1926.

On 21 February 1979, a settlement was agreed whereby local authority workers got an 11% pay increase. The case of Camden Council workers hit the headlines however, since they were granted a rise which was much higher - which became known as the "Camden Supplement" and the District Auditor took the councillors to court claiming this was "unreasonable spending" and illegal. This became a test case on councillors' discretionary powers, and when it eventually got to the High Court in 1982, the judge ruled in the councillors' favour.

It just so happens that the councillor behind this, was one Ken Livingstone, then Camden's housing chairman. He had proposed a local settlement for the council's NUPE (National Union of Public Employees) workers, of £12.65 a week and a £60/week minimum wage. This turned out to be more than what was agreed nationally by the NUPE leadership. At the time Livingstone said he was genuinely keen to end the strike as he had tenants ringing him up because their heating had been cut off. "It wasn't an unreasonable demand.... [the council] was employing people in their forties and fifties on £35/week. A lot of [the council's] middle class members who were earning £10,000, £15,000 or £20,000 a year were horrified to discover that a lot of our workforce were taking home not much more than they were giving their kids for pocket money". On the other hand, one biographer claims that Livingstone had never expected the Labour group on the council to agree his demand, and that this had been a tactic to expose and discredit the leadership, which was his normal way of operating. Which is entirely believable given his subsequent record of self-aggrandisement and overt opportunism.

Thatcher chops off the purse strings

It was this "Winter of Discontent" which paved the way for Thatcher's attack on the public sector, and on local government finance in particular.

Despite having more councillors and controlling more councils than any other party, in 1979, Thatcher's incoming Tory government announced that it was going to clamp down on local government because it was "wasteful, profligate, irresponsible, unaccountable, luxurious and out of control".

For almost 400 years, the one local tax available to local authorities was a property tax, applied to homeowners as domestic rates and businesses as the business rate. However, by the mid-1970s, the Rate Support Grant paid by central government was funding over half of local authorities' net spending, leaving them to find up to 35% through local rates.

Thatcher inherited and applied the same methods as her Labour predecessors, to reduce local expenditure, continuing to cut Treasury grants but also imposing unprecedented penalties for overspending. Local councils responded by raising local rates to make up the deficit. Thatcher's government then retaliated by introducing rate capping. Central government now stipulated the maximum rate that could be set by local councils, to force down spending.

This led to some local rebellions including Sheffield Council, led by a left-posturing David Blunkett, Liverpool Council, where the then left-wing Militant had managed to take control under the self-serving Derek Hatton, and Lambeth council led by "Red" Ted Knight.

These councils refused to set a rate, but when this was ruled illegal, only Liverpool and Lambeth stuck to their guns. The rate set by Liverpool, however, could not cover its spending commitments. The local council was Liverpool's largest employer. The Militant leadership then found itself caught in its own reformist straightjacket and actually chose to issue redundancy notices to the workforce, explaining that it could not afford to pay them. Its councillors were removed from office for failing to adhere to their "legal duty". The 78 Liverpool and Lambeth councillors who opposed rate-capping were taken to court by the District Auditor, and surcharged a total of £600,000 with costs, which obviously meant they all had to declare bankruptcy. However, in all these cases, unlike in the Poplar rebellion, there was little or no attempt made to mobilise the council workers let alone the working class populations of these towns. In the view of these new wave "municipal socialists", they were doing the trick themselves on behalf of everyone.

Axe the tax!

However, what is remembered most vividly from this period, is the Tories' attempted introduction of the poll tax, in 1989/90, due to the widespread public revolt it invoked and the contribution it made to Thatcher's final replacement as Tory prime minister by John Major.

As part of their unfinished business in attacking local government finance, domestic rates and business rates were abolished entirely, to be replaced by the "community charge" dubbed the "poll tax". This was implemented first in Scotland, in 1989 - and then in England and Wales, in 1990. The poll tax was a flat rate charge to be paid by every adult over the age of 18 and at a level set by individual councils, regardless of the ability to pay, discriminating against the poor and in favour of the rich, and which anyway could be capped by central government.

As for the business rate, it was to be "nationalised" in other words, central government would set its rate at a uniform level throughout the country, potentially allowing businessmen to get completely off the hook.

The Tories' purpose in introducing the poll tax, was of course in part to reduce local expenditure, and exercise more control. But by making councils dependent on a tax which was bound to be unpopular, they put Labour councils in a potentially precarious position, especially since it was these councils which had the highest social expenditure, because of their predominantly working class populations.

However, the Tories had not realised just how unpopular this tax would be. Tens of thousands of people were criminalised and many jailed for refusing to pay. Protests and demonstrations soon turned into riots. Councils found they just could not collect the tax. In November 1990, Thatcher lost the Conservative leadership and John Major stepped into her shoes, promising to abolish the poll tax. In March 1991, Chancellor Lamont said he would finance a cut in every poll tax bill by £140, by increasing VAT from 15% to 17.5%! But just 2 days later Environment Secretary Heseltine announced the abolition of the poll tax and its replacement with the council tax.

However, having lost revenue from the business rate and because of the VAT increase, local government was now only in a position to finance around one sixth of its expenditure from council tax. This has in meantime crept up to about one fifth.

Predictably, what has happened is that deficits due to falling grants from the Treasury are being funded by hikes in council tax. And guess what? Blair and Brown have stepped in to cap them! But more of that later, since the Tory years saw many other significant changes in local government.

Abolishing opponents and replacing them with quangos

Having imposed cuts and caps in councils finances by the early 1980s, next in the Tories' line of fire was the Greater London Council, now led by "Red" Ken Livingstone as he was then known, and the other so called "loony left" councils - which were lampooned almost daily in the press for their "nuclear free zones" and other displays of political correctness.

In 1985, the GLC was abolished, as well as the 6 metropolitan county councils which had, by then, come under Labour control. For the first time since 1855, London had no city-wide government. Many of the GLC's responsibilities were transferred to the boroughs and district councils. However some so-called joint boards and ad hoc agencies went on dealing with specific London-wide tasks. Of course these were not elected but appointed, thereby creating a network of quangos!

In fact one of the features of the Tory years was the creation of what has been called the "quango state". At local level, there was an enormous growth of such non-elected or indirectly elected bodies at the expense of directly elected councils. Of course the problem was less one of these bodies being non-elected than of their being uncontrollable. As we all know, elected bodies are frequently beyond control!

To quote one study published in 1997: "The local quango state is now extensive and has taken over or usurped the role of local authorities in providing many services. In social housing, the Housing Corporation has taken control of most new housing investment from local authorities. It also oversees the local housing associations which have become the main channel for investment in new social housing programmes locally. A handful of housing action trusts have replaced local housing department management on some public housing estates. In education, grant-maintained schools have been removed from local authority control... all further education colleges, formerly run by local authorities, have been merged and transformed into quangos; polytechnics have moved from local authority control to become universities within the province of the Higher Education Funding Council; the school careers service has been taken out of local government and passed on to private companies. In planning, 12 urban development corporations were created in England to take over planning in inner-city areas. Employment services were developed outside local authority control, through training and enterprise councils (TECs) and their Scottish equivalents, local enterprise companies (LECs)... Local authorities lost their representatives on health boards..."All in all there were around 5,000 of these quangos when Labour took over in 1997, vowing to get rid of them. They were run by a total of 60,000 mainly ministerially appointed or self-appointed "quangocrats", making more than 3 of them for every local councillor. In 2000 there were still 4,952 of these bodies, and by 2005, 111 more had been created. What is included here of course, are the autonomous NHS trusts, Housing Action trusts, health authority boards, City technology colleges, and further education institutions.

While most of the quangocrats are co-opted from the business world and would not be paid to attend the meetings of their quango, they certainly are able to control the way that public funds are spent, in their own interests and that, of course, is the whole point.

Just like a Dame

It is worth recalling just how arrogant politicians can get when they think they can act with impunity. In local government perhaps one of the worst examples of corruption and arrogance was personified by the leader of Westminster Council between 1986 and 1981, Dame Shirley Porter, whose family made their money launching the Tesco supermarket chain. She was awarded a CBE by the Queen in 1991, though quite what for is anyone's guess, except that she was a bosom pal of Thatcher's and had got away with murder. Perhaps that is what was being honoured. Anyway she had literally cleansed the most marginal wards in Westminster of potential Labour voters, after the Tories had won by a very narrow electoral margin in 1986.

She did this by putting up much of Westminster's social housing for sale, rather than re-letting when homes became vacant. This was what Dame Shirley called "Building Stable Communities"! Homeless people and students and student nurses were also removed from residences and hostels in marginal wards. Many ended up placed in the safe Labour ward of Harrow Road - in Hermes and Chantry Point tower blocks which were riddled with asbestos, had no heating or sanitation and had been due for demolition.

The scandal took many years to unravel, of course, but in 1996, Porter was found to have acted illegally and ordered to pay the cost of her policy, estimated at £27m. This was overturned on appeal and then reinstated in 2001. However Porter fled to Israel, transferred her money to other members of her family and claimed her assets were only £300,000 and that she couldn't pay. In April 2004, almost 20 years later, her fine was revised to £12.3m. She still has not paid and this is still under review by the District Auditor. However Porter is back in London, living in a £1.5m flat in Westminster! And what about the tenants she evicted? Where are they?

The abuse of the elderly

The care of the elderly was always a local government responsibility, even if it had to be supplemented by charities, which provided and still provide, many "old people's homes" and services, because public provision has never, ever, been adequate. Yet under the Tories a systematic attack against social care for the elderly was launched in the 1980s, which has continued ever since.

By 1983, thanks to cuts in funding, local authorities were only able to pay for the accommodation of half as many elderly residents in charitable homes, compared to 10 years before. As a result, the centrally-administered social security benefit payments of elderly residents were soon used to fund their care in the "independent" sector. Because of this sure and direct funding from the Department of Social Security, private entrepreneurs saw an opportunity and private care homes began to appear all over the country, to prosper on public funds! At the same time, over the following decade, places in local authority homes were cut accordingly. The NHS also had little choice but to discharge patients from long-term care into private nursing homes, rather than local authority homes.

By April 2003, only 17% of the total places available for the long term care of the elderly and physically disabled, were still in local authority hands.

Today, charges for residential care are determined by national guidelines, using means testing. If residents own assets (like a house), they will be expected to use them to pay their charges, in other words sell their homes. Once this source has dried up, local and central government will foot the bill in full. So the now mostly profit-making private homes have every interest in charging exorbitant rates, swallowing every penny of the assets of their elderly residents and then passing the bill on to the government. Which is precisely what they do and this is why the profits in this sector have been growing exponentially. This is a scandal of course. And it has only got worse under Labour, which sees nothing wrong in the private sector making such a huge packet on the backs of the elderly.

While it had already been legal from 1980, for councils to charge for personal social services to help the aged stay in their own homes as long as possible, they had always resisted doing this. However by the early 1990s, central government was allocating the Personal Social Service grant on the basis that at least 9% of these costs would be recouped. As a result locally-fashioned means testing began to be used to decide who qualified for local authority support - and in fact those who did were only the most destitute. By 2000, 94% of councils were charging for home care services.

To make matters worse, in 1994, the Tory government had ruled that only people with complex or multiple healthcare needs that required continuing and specialist medical or nursing supervision had the right to free NHS care. As a result, local authorities were stuck trying to find care packages under their "personal social services" for yet more elderly people, but with needs which could not be satisfactorily met within this under-resourced budget. It also meant that many elderly people and their relatives now had no choice but to pay for private nursing homes, since the care they required might have been medical, and from nurses and doctors, but it was not deemed "specialist". Since this has not changed to this day under Labour, the scandal continues, although court cases are at present challenging the NHS over this iniquity.

From CCT .. and casualisation...

Some of the most far-reaching changes introduced by the Tories between 1979 and 1997, were those which allowed ministers to intervene in budget making and tax setting processes of individual councils. And of these it was Compulsory Competitive Tendering or CCT which had the most profound effect from the point of view of the working class - for those workers who formed the council workforce and for those on the receiving end of council services.

The CCT process required the contracting out to the private sector of specified services on the basis of a comparison between what it cost the council to provide them and what private companies tendered as their price for taking them over. Contracts were to be awarded to the lowest bidder, and councils were not allowed to make any conditions with regard to trade union rights, employment protection, pensions, sickness benefits or anything else which the government asserted would "restrict or distort" the competition. It was the competitive tendering and not the actual contracting out which was made compulsory, however, which meant that provided that the in-house costs could be proven to be less, the service could remain in-house.

These in-house service deliverers became known as Direct Service Organisations or DSOs. And in fact in a majority of cases they won the right to run the service by putting forward the lowest bid. Only 40% of the contracts were actually won by private companies, representing however, only 25% of the value of all these contracts, which says a lot about the wages and conditions of the workers employed by these companies, the cut corners and the poor quality, since they were actually only involved in order to make a profit!

In fact CCT contracting out started with blue collar services like construction and maintenance of roads and housing in 1980. Then in 1988 there was privatisation of refuse collection, grounds and vehicle maintenance, building, street cleaning, school meals and sports and leisure provision. In 1992, CCT was extended to white collar services, like housing management, legal, personnel. financial and IT services. This was how companies like Capita emerged to become huge and parasitic monsters financed by local and cetral government contracts.

For local government as a whole, this "client" and "contractor" split meant the creation of an internal market with all the management paraphernalia which accompanies it, just as happened later in the NHS. At the same time, local authority jobs were cut by 20-30%. And this happened even under the in-house DSO contracts. Now permanent workers were replaced by temps. For those workers, predominantly women, who did manage to hang onto their jobs there were cuts in benefits, sick pay and pensions. Under the Transfer of Undertakings or TUPE European law, which was meant to protect workers transferred to a private contractor, workers still found that they were presented with new contracts to sign "or else" which was the convenient loophole in this law, as well as facing cuts in their pensions, which were not even covered by the supposed legal protection.

Thus began the drive towards casualisation of the British workforce, led by local government and indeed the NHS - two of the country's largest employers. And, of course, those on the local services frontline, the home helps, the street cleaners, the refuse collectors and the dinner ladies - all now working on either DSO or private contract, often as temps and often part-time, are today paid barely above the minimum wage. What is more, even those workers who retained permanent contracts have by now been subject to a transfer to a new contractor several times over, with a slow but sure erosion of their terms and conditions.

...to BV and even more cuts

Of course, all this was meant to change when Labour won the 1997 election. But all it did was remove the "C" from CCT and rename the process "Best Value", which was introduced in 1999. Worse than CCT it now applied to every single service and function. Councils were meant to evaluate everything they did and find ways to do it cheaper and supposedly better. They were also encouraged to consider not providing some services at all. This assault on services was backed up by an extensive system of league tables and targets enforced by a bureaucracy of inspectors. A 2004 survey of county councils found that each county was spending almost £500,000 a year and an average of 2,555 days handling inspections. Yes, this new inspection industry is estimated to cost (and therefore make) around £600m per year!

As for financial scrutiny - this is meant to be carried out by the Audit Commission, which was established in 1982 under the Tories as an executive quango. But this has also proved a milchcow for already far too overfed financial companies who are contracted to do the auditing, like PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and Touche, and KPMG.

There are many examples of Blair's government bullying and blackmailing councils or even tenants into doing what it wants. Like the refusal to supply needed cash for school repairs if a council refused to establish City Academies, for example. Or the withholding of money for repairs on housing estates whose tenants refuse to be handed over to private management companies.

And what has changed for local government workers under Labour? The answer is, of course that nothing has changed - or perhaps the situation is even worse as constant expenditure cuts erode jobs and conditions. In just the last week for instance, workers for Falkirk Council went on strike because the council had torn up their original employment contracts and imposed a new one which cut pay and conditions. The GMB union announced it was going to court over 70 Tower Hamlets grounds' maintenance workers who were not paid a £50 Xmas bonus by their employer, a company called Fountains, which makes £100,000 profit a year on this contract alone. And Enfield parking attendants took three days strike action just last week against their employer, NCP, which is subcontracted to Enfield council, because it refuses to recognise their union's right to negotiate their pay and conditions.

What Labour has succeeded in doing is to turn local authorities into management organisations which merely commission services from unaccountable providers over whom they have no direct control - other than the contractual conditions, which are so devoid of any regulation as to render these contractors near-autonomous.

Indeed this is, if anything, reinforced by Labour's "structural reforms" under its Local Government Act 2000. Of course, it has reinstated a government for the whole of London, under a new Greater London Authority - with an elected Mayor. And it has offered the same kind of "mayor with cabinet" package to city and borough councils elsewhere. Not that this has been taken up by the local electorate - where referendums on instituting a mayor took place, fewer than half came out with a "yes" vote.

As for London, Labour was stuck with Ken Livingstone as mayor , the man they had expelled from the party in 2000. But after his popularity soared, Blair naturally ushered him back into the ranks, where he always really belonged. And Livingstone soon nailed his colours to Blair's mast as well, as we saw with his wooing of the City and his "business first" policies, not to mention the appointments he made to his staff or the partnership deals he has agreed in order to fund London Underground.

That said, the executive powers which Livingstone has are very limited. He has responsibility for setting the budget for Transport for London, the Met Police Authority, the Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and the London Development Agency. But these are all consultation or strategy making bodies. Only TfL has some executive responsibilities. The GLA has no revenue raising powers of its own, except for the congestion charge (contracted to Capita) and levies on off-street parking. In fact the idea was to avoid at all costs the creation of a body in any way similar to the old GLC which Livingstone led and used to launch his political career. As a result, this GLA is toothless and Livingstone is really just London's PR man, something he is well suited to.

The Big Business they have funded

Local government in Britain is still very big business, even after all the changes over the past three decades. It employs around 2.6m people, undertakes over 700 functions on its own or "in partnership" with the private sector, and last year its total spending was £136 billion.

While the proportion GDP spent by local government has declined to 10% since the 1970s from 50% in 1975, this is still a vast sum of money and represents one quarter of government expenditure. In fact one hundred of the larger local authorities would rank alongside the top 500 British companies if listed by expenditure. Kent County Council's 1.3m population makes it larger than a quarter of the member states of the United Nations and its £1.9bn budget is higher than almost one third of them. County Councils, such as Kent as well as the metropolitan districts and London Boroughs are among the biggest of local government businesses. And since they are responsible for commissioning services from private companies - in other words they hold the purse strings of huge lucrative contracts, there is enormous scope for cross-patronage and corruption. However unlike in the days of T Dan Smith, today this is perfectly legal!

In 1998 Blair explained what sort of model he wanted for local government: "The days of the all-purpose authority that planned and delivered everything are gone. They are finished. It is in partnership with others ... that local government's future lies. Local authorities will deliver some services, but their distinctive leadership role will be to weave and knit together the contribution of various local stakeholders". What he meant of course, was that local councils would now only be there to administer and award contracts.

In fact this is what Labour's reform of local government has been all about in the last 10 years.

First of all, the number of "partnerships" at local level with private business and so-called voluntary organisations has exploded. Today there are around 5,500 such collaborations, employing 75,000 people just as board members alone, and at a cost of £4.3bn a year! Here we are talking about Connexions which supports teenagers, the New Deal, Sure Start, all the so-called "Action Zones" for employment, sport, education and health etc, etc.

Many of these could be described as public-private partnerships. However local PFI projects undertaken thanks to Labour, are probably even more important. In fact they were actually only begun after Blair took office - even if it was the Tories who had come up with PFI as a way of handing lucrative public contracts over to the private sector while excluding the public money thus handed over from the Treasury's public expenditure accounts.

Between 1997 and 2005, 300 local government PFI projects costing £12bn were endorsed by the Treasury. Examples of these are the Leeds "Supertram", replacing 11 secondary schools in Knowsley with 8 new learning centres, providing 550 units of affordable housing to "replace" (are they joking?) 650 old council homes with were reckoned unsuitable for refurbishment, new street lighting in Derby, a new one-stop library for Lewisham, with 2 GP practices in it, and a leisure facility attached... And so on...

It is local government's school building which has been another private sector money-spinner of course. And here an old name crops up again - John Laing - the construction company so close to Blair's heart that it has been building hospitals, schools and prisons all over the country under contract to local and central government. However, the Audit Commission has found that the first batch of PFI schools were not up to the old standards. An NUT report followed to explain that since schools were now tenants of PFI companies, they would have much less financial flexibility and that it was likely they would fire staff if they ran into budget difficulties.

More shocking to some, perhaps, was Ken Livingstone's part privatisation of the rail tracks of London Underground in 2002. The 30-year contracts went to two consortiums, Metronet and Tubelines. Tubelines is the smaller of the consortiums consisting of Amey and Bechtel and is responsible only for the Northern, Piccadilly and Jubilee lines. It has been doing very well, and registered a profit for 2006 of £43m! The larger Metronet is made up of Atkins, Balfour Beatty, Bombardier, EDF Energy, and RWE Thames Water. It made £50m profit out of its "partnership" with Livingstone in 2004! However, last November it was fined for various failures and now claims that cost overruns will cost £750m. Presumably Livingstone has the powers to revoke these 30-year contracts? At the moment he is asking for an "urgent review" not to end the partnership, but to enquire into whether all of the shareholders should be held responsible for the chaotic situation of maintenance and rebuilding on the underground!

Going back to the PFI contracts - these are so lucrative that they have become a major speculative vehicle on the financial markets - with a record issue of bonds to fund them - valued at £3.5bn last year.

Against the profiteers, workers' control is the answer!

In the last ten years Labour has been adding even more sophistication in allowing capital to use the public sector as its private milchcow. This process had continued relentlessly despite the opposition of tenant's associations, residents' committees, and council workers up and down the country. There is no way to exercise any so-called democratic rights through the official channels, even if some (but not all) council meetings are meant to be open to the public. In fact the public has no right to speak at these meetings anyway! And as the home helps who went to the council meetings in Bromley to try to argue their case against being outsourced, found out long ago, there was no help available there. How could they expect any sympathy from councillors who have long chosen to implement their party's anti-working class policies rather than risk their seats by standing up for workers' interests?

As was said earlier, local institutions were never designed to make local government accountable to working people, not any more than the Commons or any board of directors for that matter. How many times have workers enquiring about the clauses of contracts made by their local councils been told that they were covered by commercial confidentiality? Any attack against council workers and services can be concealed behind that.

But this veil of secrecy can only work as long as the working class allows itself to be impressed by such spurious pretexts. Why should so-called "elected representatives" be allowed to cut deals behind the backs of voters - and, what is more, at their expense - in the first place?

We should recall that the strength - and success - of the Poplar rebellion was not primarily due to the role played by the councillors themselves. It was due to the fear felt by ministers in front of the mobilisation of the Poplar working class. What applied then, in the depth of the postwar recession, would apply even more today, when the capitalist class is so awash with money that it does not know what to do with it, partly thanks to its plundering of public funds. Fear would be, indeed, a beneficial antidote to such arrogance!

There is only one way to tackle assaults on working class living standards, such as those carried out via local government over the past two decades. That is by imposing the scrutiny of the working class on each one of the decisions made by these so-called "representative" politicians. Where has the money gone; who benefited from this or that contract; how much profit did they make out of it and at what cost for workers and local people; what are their connections with council politicians; and above all, where is the evidence? These are the questions that should be asked at each stage, without taking no for an answer. The working class produces everything in this society. It is only right that it should be able to control what is being done on its behalf, using taxpayers' money, which, after all, is taken out of the wealth it produces.

Imposing this control on local institutions would not make them more democratic, nor would it change the reactionary views of many politicians. But it would at least ensure that before making any decision they would have to think it over many times and to take into account the likely reactions of working people - which they certainly do not today.

Of course, such control can only be exercised on the basis of a certain relationship of forces, in which workers show their strength and make their determination clear enough to be feared. But this does not necessarily require massive mobilisations such as that against the poll tax, even short-lived and headless as it was. Enforcing workers' control can be started anywhere, by any group of workers, who are determined not to submit any longer to the diktats of institutions which are acting as conveyor belt for public money into private pockets. It can be started anywhere, on any scale, because such examples, if successful, are always contagious.