“Whatever the restrictions they face, the choices councils make are political ones”

Manchester Town Hall. Image: Getty.

How we run local communities, what services are provided and by whom, are deeply political questions. The philosophical traditions of the two main parties in Britain differ greatly on state involvement at every level: national, local and international.

So I take umbrage when people try to divide politics neatly into pragmatism and ideology. This was the argument set forth by Claire Kober, until very recently leader of Haringey Council, and the woman at the eye of the storm over the Haringey Delivery Vehicle programme to build new homes and regenerate old council properties. There are already a million articles written on that topic, so I don’t intend to go into the rights and wrongs of the case here. What concerns me is the framing of politics vs pragmatism that Kober sets out.

It is certainly the case that the left can put unreasonable demands on Labour councils. Local authorities are severely hampered both by austerity and by overbearing central restrictions: few seem to understand this when calling for illegal budget setting or non-statutory services that are impossible to deliver without outside investment.

It’s the case, too, that the reason the system is close to breaking is the pressure put on councils by the extreme ideological cuts to their funding that have crippled them since 2010.

But the opposite of unreasonable is not apolitical. Whatever the restrictions they face, the choices councils are political ones. Claire Kober describes herself as a pragmatic socialist – but as such, the people who agree with her need not just to make the case for pragmatism, but to argue why their pragmatism is socialist too.

Equally, the MPs who have declared no confidence in Northamptonshire County Council need to explain how – under their government’s ‘devolved axe’ – they would do things differently in and for their county. If they believe in letting local government be freer, leaner and less dependent on central grant money, they need to make the capitalist case for that freedom, and the winners and – inevitably – losers that competition creates. How would their national vision translate to Northamptonshire, its local challenges, demographics and needs?

But unfortunately, across the board in politics, we give very little priority to the local. This means that in general, it is not politics that's missing from most conversations about local government, but politics at the right level. Too often, litmus tests on national or international issues decide who a faction of the local party will back when it comes to council selections. In Labour, a person's view on the Middle East might well trump their vision for local service delivery. For the Tories, it's their view on Brexit, not bins, that really matters.


Voters are often the same, punishing local politicians for decisions made by national parties, seeing council elections just as referenda on the government of the day or how they think the opposition is doing. The parties reflect this by running election broadcasts on national issues or national leadership. It wins them votes, so you can understand it – but more and more, we denigrate the understanding of what local government does, who does it, what they do it for and why.

Labour councillors are not making decisions about private investment because they are ideologically wedded to the private sector. They believe, as all socialists and social democrats do, in using the state to improve the lives of the people of their boroughs. They just believe that under current circumstances, the kinds of challenges they face need far greater investment than the government is willing to provide. So, they feel they have to look to the private sector to do so.

Equally, most of the left is not opposing these decisions because they want to stop new housing being built, but because they genuinely believe there are better solutions that don’t lead to a diminishing of public stock. They are willing to trade conditions likely to lead to short term inaction for a chance at better solutions long term.

As to the Tories, they believe that a reduction in state dependency is going to be good for people in the long term. And so, they need to make the case for how that works in areas that fall short as Northamptonshire has, instead of simply playing the blame game. The party of central government and the party of local government in Northamptonshire are the same. If these MPs want to make the case that the failure there isn’t a Conservative one, they will need sharper answers than simply devolving blame.

There may well be answers that speak to both short and long term radicalism. But to find them, protagonists from both sides of Labour’s factional debate or the Conservatives national/local split will have to adopt a better, more open, understanding of where each side is coming from. If local Labour Parties can drop the fights over national issues, it might be possible to allow their shared ideology to come up with a solution that serves their community best. If Tories can work together to support local government struggling to impose national cuts, they might find better ways of delivering at each level. There may well be compromises that can be found through imagination, local action and local knowledge – but to find them, parties will have to set aside their internal differences and do the hard work of agreeing strategy and delivering for the people who elect them.

We need to put ideology back into the local government conversation. As politics has become more ideological again, it is important that the parties are able to offer their communities fierce competition over what they will do for and with them. If Capitalism or Socialism don’t work locally, they can’t work nationally. Big ideas don’t have to be played out on big stages.

 
 
 
 

Park Life: On the repeated incineration of Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace from the air. Image: John Bointon/Wikimedia Commons.

Head directly north in a straight line from the official centre point of London at Charing Cross, and the first park of any real size you’ll hit is Alexandra Park. You’ll know you’re headed in the right direction when you spot the whacking great palace sat on the hill in the middle of it.

But Alexandra Palace and Park aren’t the former home of some forgotten bit of the nobility: they were actually purpose built for more or less their current use, as a venue for North Londoners to get up to a wide variety of things that may or may not be considered fun.

Various Victorians, including Owen Jones (presumably not him), one of the architects responsible for the Crystal Palace in the south, thought an equivalent in the north might be worthwhile, and used the same cost-saving manoeuvre: while the Crystal Palace had been built from the construction materials of the Great Exhibition, it’s northern counterpart used parts from the 1862 International Exhibition in Kensington.

Proving some kind of point, I guess.

Initially known as “the palace of the People”, it took on a marginal air of aristocracy when the park opened in 1863, the same year that the future King Edward VII married Alexandra of Denmark. The building opened in 1873, and copied Crystal Palace again, by almost immediately burning to the ground.


But two years later they’d nailed the bits back together and finally the people of North London had something to do other than complaining how long it’s going to take them to get to this birthday party in Peckham.

One of the more notable features of the next century or so of the park’s existence was its racecourse, known as The Frying Pan, because it looked a bit like a frying pan on whatever the Victorian equivalent of satellite photography is (balloon rides or imagining things, I guess). Popular for much of its life, attendances dwindled in the 1970s. Who wants to look at horses when television’s in colour now?

It was the favourite course of famous sexist and horse describer John McCririck – he’s been linked to efforts to get it rebuilt, and has instructed his wife to scatter his ashes on the site. Hopefully local residents will be warned so they can shut their windows first. Though the outline of the course is visible from above – the cricket pitch sits in the middle of it – It otherwise only survives in the names of a couple of now trendified gastro-pubs, the Victoria Stakes and the Starting Posts.

Early non-horse based physical activities available included going up in a balloon (mainly to draw pictures of what the race course looked like, presumably) and then jumping off the balloon while wearing a parachute if you were, for example, waitress turned daredevil Dolly Shepherd, commemorated in a mural on the side of the palace. There was also a lido, which legend states was used to wash visiting circus Elephants. It is unclear whether this is connected to the dubious cleanliness that to its demise by the early part of the last century.

Winter sports have been an unlikely intermittent features of the park: you prod the some of the undergrowth on one side of the hill, you might be able to uncover the remains of what was once London’s most popular dry ski slope, ideal for if you didn’t want to have to lie to all your friends about how much fun your first skiing holiday had been. Though long since defunct, in 1990 it gained a spiritual successor in the palace’s ice rink, which among other things has been home to various ice hockey teams, most recently the ‘Haringey Huskies’, it says here.

Less glamorous from this angle. Image: Ed Jefferson.

But back in the 1980s the palace and park were briefly threatened with being entirely sport-based. After the palace decided to have a belated centenary celebration and burn down again, there was a proposal to redevelop the whole thing into a massive sports complex, including – good news, snow haters – a brand new dry ski slope. In the end nothing came of it – the existing building was retained and most of the sport associated with the park now is of the indoor variety: among many other things, the palace hosts darts and table tennis tournaments.

The park does see a bit of the action. Aside from the football and cricket pitches, a popular brand of energising drink sponsors an annual soapbox race, and there’s a miniature golf course that makes up for being golf by a) being miniature and b) allowing you to drink while playing (well, if you book the whole thing for an office party circa 2011).

Sadly the park’s best sport of all has been retired: watching puce-faced CityMetric writers attempt to run to the top of the hill the palace sits on, while placing bets on whether they will reach the top before keeling over and dying (2015-2018).