Discussion – Len Arthur
Generalising from a community council
A little bit of Labour history was made in Pontyclun in the May local elections: we managed to win the two county council seats and four seats on the community council. There are some disputes about the dates, but it may be that this is the first time Pontyclun has directly elected Labour borough councillors since 1968. In contrast to some of the other discussion pieces, this one will start from the bottom and work up, and not from the blue skies down.
The Pontyclun Community Council (PCC) is composed of 11 councillors, so the four of us are in a minority. There is one Plaid councillor and the other 6 are independents, of whom 4 at the time of the election were associated with a group that is called the Pontyclun Action Group (PAG). Instead of trying to scrape together an alliance with couple of councillors who might talk to us, it soon emerged that most councillors were initially willing to talk strategically and long term about how the Council should operate until the next election, so we decided to test this out at some informal meetings open to all councillors.
A general strategic aim was agreed and we then established 6 working groups with specific aims within which most of our election commitments and other ideas could be covered. The working groups are administration; economic development; community engagement and accountability; social and cultural action – including issues of poverty; physical environment; and young people. We used the term ‘working groups’ so that all decision would still be referred to the full council, and non-councillors could join the groups and help develop policy and new agendas. In fact non-councillors could be in the majority. Greater detail is available on our Pontyclun Labour Party blog.
The system has been in operation for about 4 months and is working reasonably well but has been rather demanding for those of us taking the working groups seriously – remember all councillors are volunteers and receive no pay or set allowances including the chair. We have managed to employ a new clerk following the retirement of the existing one, using rigorous ‘blind’ procedures, and have started to put considerable flesh on many of the election commitments. Our key innovation of directly involving non-councillors in policy discussion and development is slowly taking off, and is resulting in many creative suggestions in what could be described as a greater ‘sophistication of proposals’.
Some of us – of course – have notions of soviets in mind, but putting the humour to one side, there are three key democratic socialist achievements. First, accountability moves beyond the ballot box and becomes an everyday part of the process of council work, enabling local people to directly influence areas in which they have an interest. Second, we start to break away from the ‘customer’ notion of social democratic politics, that as councillors we can only ‘prove’ ourselves only by being good deliverers or unpaid social workers. Direct involvement means the electorate have an opportunity to experience self activity and to be an integral part of making change happen. Third, power is experienced as a direct reality, not only in how decisions can be put into practice, but also the downside of just how challenging can be the real balance of forces against us.
Now, of course, we are a small community council with an annual turnover of £110k and £150k savings in the bank. There is little to cut and much to play for to bring in additional sources of money. Two of our Labour community councillors are also county councillors and this improves our access to a wider range of support, both in terms of specialists and some grants. It is, however, possible to see in this relationship with county councillors how the local experience can be generalised up. Where community councils exist, open working groups can be established and where they don’t, local councillors or groups of councillors could establish working groups to act in the same way. Similarly, with structures like this in place, AMs and MPs can have a direct and accountable input. Trade unions and other parts of the labour movement, such as cooperatives, also have another route into direct decision-making.
No organisational form or structure is nirvana; it becomes a terrain of struggle. Letting go in a way that is suggested here will mean that councillors and other representatives will be faced with proposals that they might not like, or face difficulties in implementation. It will mean that the political case will have to be argued through, as opposed to being ignored or avoided. It will also mean that, faced with cutbacks, people may be armed with an understanding that will lead them to take challenging direct action or expect us as Labour Party members to take the lead: we should relish the opportunity!