Tribune leader, 15 May 1992

Several   leading   Labour   politi­cians have dismissed the party’s dismal performance in last week’s local elections as a simple matter of Labour voters not bothering to turn out so soon after the disappointment of the general election result.
There is some truth in this, and even more in the idea that Labour Party members in many areas were too demor­alised by the defeat and its aftermath to campaign. But it would be wrong to blame the debacle of May 7 entirely on that of April 9.
In several of the councils where Labour did worst, it did not deserve to do any better, simply on the basis of its dire record in office.
The best Labour councils are indeed shining examples of efficiency and responsiveness but in many areas (much of the West Midlands, for example) Labour local government is lacklustre and incompetent. In a few it is simply corrupt and nepotistic.
This is nothing new. Ineffectual or rot­ten Labour councils (most but not all of them Right-wing) have been a feature of British political life for as long as any­one can remember, and for long periods local boss politics was the rule rather than the exception in large swathes of the country.
On the whole, Labour today has clean­er hands than for most of the past 50 years, which says much for the party’s capacity to renew itself from the roots up. Since the early eighties, many of the worst old right machines have been swept aside by party members sickened by the abuse of council office.
There are, however, good reasons to wonder whether this healthy process will continue in the future. Labour’s ability to renew itself in local government has depended on there being a constant stream of vigorous young peo­ple joining the party, getting worked up about the way the local council operates and organising to get rid of the guilty men. That stream has all but dried up in most places and, even where it hasn’t, Labour parties are finding it difficult to interest anyone in becoming a council­lor now that the powers of local govern­ment have been so drastically reduced by the Tories.
Unless Labour finds some way of at­tracting new blood, Tammany Hall poli­tics will become the norm again.
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