A critique of the Leeds Labour Manifesto 2018

Last year’s launch by Jeremy Corbyn of Labour’s general election manifesto dramatically changed the shape of that election. With radical policies including renationalisation of public services, a £10/hr minimum wage and free education, it inspired millions, especially young people who turned out to rallies in their thousands.

In council leader Judith Blake’s introduction to the Leeds Labour Manifesto 2018 she correctly says “Enough of cuts to vital services that hurt our communities; enough of cuts to schools, hospitals and local policing; enough of library and youth centre closures, enough of leaving elderly and disabled people without essential care; and enough of failed privatisations that drain funds out of public services so a few can make a profit.”

Although taking the same name, “For the many, not the few”, this year’s Leeds Labour council manifesto is a pale imitation at best. Penned by Headingley councillor Jonathan Pryor (a 2015 Yvette Cooper supporter), its radical ideas are those that Labour under Corbyn will implement nationally, and for the most part dodges any responsibility for the current policies of the council. This is far from Blake’s promise that “we as the Labour-run Leeds City Council are fighting back.”

As Blake says in her introduction “Austerity is a political choice” – unfortunately, the council under her and her predecessor Keith Wakefield’s leadership has been choosing to pass on the Tory cuts rather than fight them. It’s somewhat odd to see the manifesto praising the council leadership for creating just 100 jobs after slashing thousands since 2010.

Likewise, to say that “Leeds Labour will specifically invest extra funding into mental health services, particularly for those at risk of suicide. This is a priority for us” would be more of a welcome step if it wasn’t for the council cutting the funding to the Leeds Crisis Centre back in 2011, which provided precisely the services which are now being talked about.

Or to give another example, saying they are “committed to helping people with complex needs like dementia” having just presided over the closure of the Green, a specialist dementia care home in East Leeds (albeit rescued in the form of being a downgraded Recovery Hub).

The crowning glory for Judith Blake in this year’s budget was to bring remaining council staff up to the Foundation Living Wage of £8.75 per hour. This was a welcome step, although short of the TUC demand of £10 an hour – but it is somewhat puzzling that when the manifesto says “we will work with employers across the city to encourage this further” the council seems to have no intention of making those who it contracts out services to pay this when questioned.

They also say they support ‘banning exploitative zero hour contracts’ – but what about their own short-hour contracts, 10 hour contracts, far less than what workers can afford to live on, are present in the council.

On libraries, Leeds Labour bemoan closures across the country, but Labour have closed some libraries here in Leeds and cut opening hours of others – Rachel Reeves even held a meeting called to oppose cuts where she justified the cuts, with Lucinda Yeadon, the executive member making the cuts, as the main speaker!

Housing is a crucial issue in Leeds, with a huge council house waiting list of over 20,000 families. The manifesto gives the figure “90 applicants for every council house that becomes available”. But this requires the build of new council homes to deal with, not just control type of housing which could easily various other forms of ‘affordable housing’ (which are often not that affordable at all!).

Whilst the manifesto talks about “brownfield first” for new housing, this is not case in the Site Allocation Plan for Leeds,  with strong local opposition to the development of the Parlington estate in East Leeds on green belt land.

The manifesto also talks about “improving quality of the private rented sector”. One way of doing this would have been establishing the not-for-profit letting agency proposed to the council by TUSC in 2015, which some plans were progressed with, but now seems to have been buried. Perhaps the reason for this is that a proportion of Leeds Labour councillors are themselves landlords. 17 of Labour’s councillors have declared interests in land on 2 or more properties, with one having 18 listed interests with more withheld under the Localism Act.

On education, the council talks about £71.7m shortfall on funding for school maintainance – but no proposals on how this gap can be bridged. The council talks about being prevented from opening local authority run schools, but doesn’t talk about their now failed proposal to build a free school / academy on the Fearnville Fields, defeated by community opposition – the council’s current position is still to build this kind of school (funded by the council) on a different site. This is Leeds City Council partaking in the very same “privatising our education” they bemoan in the manifesto rather than mobilising parents around a campaign to allow the opening of local authority run schools. But then 2 Leeds Labour councillors are directors of academy trusts!

And then there are the cuts to school transport escorts for those aged 16+ with special educational needs and disabilities, which the council leadership are trying to justify by it not being a statutory duty to provide them.

The manifesto includes a pledge that “Leeds Labour wants to see a re-regulated bus service”. But the opportunity to do this came up back in 2012 via ‘Quality Contracts’, and Labour at that time buckled to the pressure of the big bus campanies. Since then First, the main bus operator in Leeds, victimised trade unionists, including the Unite branch secretary, in the most recent dispute over pay, making the case not just for regulation but for bringing public transport back into public ownership.

In the section on ‘Cleaning Our Streets’ there is no attempt to defend the council’s recent policy of charging for bulky waste collections – perhaps this is what is meant by “innovative ways to reduce the amount we send to landfill further” by increasing fly-tipping instead.

And then there are the issues that are left out altogether – for example, there has been a Leeds Labour facebook meme about fire service cutbacks – but no mention of the Labour controlled Fire Authority (made up of elected councillors from Leeds and the other West Yorkshire local authorities) closing fire stations and reducing fire cover in 2012. Or that Judith Blake is a director of Rail North (as a representative of the WYCA), the company which co-sponsored the Department for Transport’s current Northern Rail contract which includes 50% driver-only operation, although the council has since passed a motion opposing these cuts (safely after they could have influenced the situation).

There is also zero mention of the role that a Labour-led council could play through its health scrutiny powers to challenge attacks on the NHS, including the current proposals to transfer 2,000 staff into a ‘Wholly-owned subsidiary’ at Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust.

This manifesto is more spin than substance, looking good to those who perhaps are unfamiliar with Leeds Labour councils record, or the many issues omitted from it. For those seeking to translate Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies into local action, a better starting point would be the discussions which have taken place under the auspices of Leeds TUC to discuss a ‘People’s Budget’. We hope those Labour council candidates on the left who get elected this May, look beyond the limited horizons of this lacklustre manifesto, as they will find ample support for that within the wider labour and trade union movement.

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