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Scotland’s Red Council

North Ayrshire’s council is undertaking a bold experiment in municipal socialism – pursuing transformative policies on housing, the environment and workers’ rights which point the way towards a different kind of local government.

As roads to socialism close nationally, the need for a municipal road to socialism is borne by those of us on the Labour left who are privileged to hold power at a local level.

We may be few, but our impact is big. From Matthew Brown and the ‘Preston Model’, Paul Dennett’s ‘Sensible Socialism’ in Salford, and Rohksana Fiaz’s ‘People Power’ participation in Newham, through to Jamie Driscoll’s green agenda in the North of Tyne, the Left is demonstrating that we have the ideas to drive change.

In Scotland, my North Ayrshire minority administration bears the responsibility for driving a socialist agenda in Scottish politics. Since I became council leader in the Autumn of 2016—after Labour won a council by-election in the SNP’s own backyard, leading to the mass resignation of the SNP administration—we have challenged the managerialism that has recently beset Scottish politics, both in Holyrood and in council chambers.

We start from the principle that our job as Labour politicians is not to manage the status quo more effectively than our opponents – rather, we must rip it up and create something better. That means our ambitions should never simply be to mitigate the worst aspects of Tory and SNP austerity, but to raise our ambitions as socialists, and pursue a political vision in power that matches how we talk about our politics in meetings.

I would never call it easy. The centralisation of power in the UK, and in devolved Scotland, coupled with years of austerity, have left local government disempowered to the extent that many councillors lack hope that change is possible in local politics. Their ambitions have been stymied by a political system which has lost the trust of working-class communities, with devastating consequences for the Labour Party.

But the Labour Party is a big part of that problem. I am not going to talk here about the complacency of the New Labour era, the fatal sense of entitlement that eroded Labour’s working-class base in Scotland, or the serious lack of a political strategy to win back voters in ‘Red Wall’ seats under the current leadership.

Instead, from a local government perspective, my frustration lies with a party infrastructure that places too much weight on the political games within our parliaments and hardly ever acknowledges the real politics that is happening in workplaces, communities, and council chambers every day. The imminent closure of the party’s community organising unit is a case in point. Instead of investing in its relationship with the grassroots, the party is turning away from them.

Rather than telling the story of what is happening on the ground in Preston or Salford, or of the community campaigns that win local change, the party is more likely to promote a speech in a meaningless parliamentary debate by an MP or MSP intended solely to score political points. It bestows an inflated sense of importance on our parliamentarians, and fails to respect the work of Labour councillors—and indeed party members—delivering on the frontline of politics.

The Left should fill that void. We should proudly, and very regularly, promote the work of socialist councillors, organise to get more socialists to stand for local government, and then seek to use the power of local government to deliver socialist policies across the country.

In recent weeks, Tribune has been doing just that. The recent article by Salford Mayor Paul Dennett is a great example of how providing local leaders with a platform to speak about how their record in power can provide hope at a time when many in the party have been losing theirs.

In that article, Paul said that Salford is challenging ‘the assumption that nothing is achievable in local government without national political change.’ In North Ayrshire, I believe we’ve flipped that on its head, demonstrating that local government can in fact lead to national change.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and my administration should probably be extremely flattered by the SNP’s attempts to imitate our local policy agenda at Holyrood.

Change on the Local Level

Our Period Poverty initiative (launched in August 2017 when we became the first council to provide free sanitary products in all our secondary schools, followed by all council buildings), the placement of a full-time dedicated mental health counsellor in every secondary school, the exemption of care-experienced young people from council tax, and, most recently, our Community Wealth Building strategy have all been taken forward in some (mostly watered down) form by the Scottish Government.

We are showing that with the political will, even despite the constraints within which local government operates, it is possible to go well beyond the SNP’s timid managerialism. Take council housing, for example: our Labour council’s housing investment plan will deliver 1,575 new council houses, with hundreds more social housing units being delivered by local housing associations. If that scale of building programme was replicated across Scotland, the country would build around 70,000 new social houses. That’s double the SNP government’s current target (and that’s before they cut housing investment by around a fifth in their recent draft budget for 2021-22).

Even in areas where the SNP have been relatively strong, such as support for care-experienced young people, we’ve shown that you don’t need to wait for countless working groups or taskforces to get things done. In addition to the council tax exemption already mentioned, in North Ayrshire, we’ve provided a rent exemption for any young person who is a council tenant and in receipt of the care-experienced student bursary.

We’ve also passed policy to end the practice of taking young people out of school to attend hearing meetings, removed the ‘spare room barrier’ to fostering (whereby potential foster parents are ruled out not because they’re unable to provide a loving, caring environment for a young person but instead their house is not superficially large enough with spare rooms – we now work with those families to support them into adequate housing), and our Champions Board, chaired and led by care-experienced young people, have led a review of the language used by corporate parents that often creates more stigma around the care system.

As trade unionists, we have been unashamedly on the side of the council’s workforce and workers in general. We’re not only an accredited Living Wage employer – we pay the new rate of the real Living Wage six months early every year, putting the increase into the pockets of the lowest paid council workers just before Christmas. And, when the UK and Scottish governments cancelled the May Day Bank Holiday by shifting it to mark VE Day, we reinstated it by giving council staff an extra day’s holiday.

We have the largest modern apprenticeship programme, pro-rata, of any Scottish Council, and we target our employability programmes to groups who struggle to get into the labour market, such as single parents and those with disabilities, who we are supporting with the £500,000 we have invested in our supported employment programme.

And at COSLA, I have led the fight against SNP attempts to undermine the right of local government trade unions to collectively bargain on behalf of their members, opposing efforts by SNP councils to impose pay deals rather than negotiate them. Our council refused to send the Deputy First Minister’s scab letter to teachers who are employed by the council – a letter which tried to encourage them to accept the pay offer by questioning the actions of their trade union in the negotiations.

We have stuck to our internationalist values too, by showing solidarity with those in struggle – but also through a real commitment to do what we can, when we can. That’s why, over the last few years, we have committed to resettling 230 Syrian refugees. That’s not far off 10 percent of the total number of Syrian refugees resettled in Scotland – and Scotland has taken twice as many Syrian refugees as the UK average.

Our political values have shone through during the pandemic. Within days of going into lockdown last March, North Ayrshire Council launched a network of Community Hubs that have been a cornerstone of support to citizens over the last year.

In the first lockdown, we delivered over 1.5 million food packs—filled with fresh meat, fruit, and veg from local suppliers—to vulnerable residents and families in receipt of free school meals (these were not the privatised, outsourced food packs that the Tories are providing in England – these were packs that provided enough food to make fresh meals for a family of four).

Most recently, we have been replacing free school meals with £4 per day support, the highest spend per child in Scotland. But our response to the pandemic will come as little surprise to those who know anything about North Ayrshire Council, because we have been providing free meals during school holidays for years. In fact, we were the first council in the UK to tackle holiday hunger with a programme of school meals during school holiday periods.

There is a lot that we have been proud of over the last four and a half years, but we are not finished. Not when North Ayrshire continues to bear the economic and social scars caused by the deindustrialisation of the Thatcher era.

Fixing the Past for the Future

Our ambition has always been to totally reorientate the local economy so that it is more inclusive, green, and democratic. Community Wealth Building provides the lens through which to do so.

Working with Matthew Brown, CLES, the Democracy Collaborative, Common Wealth, the Scottish TUC, and others, last May we launched a strategy which has been described by others as Community Wealth Building 2.0. It seeks to use every resource at our disposal—finances, physical assets, and people—to repurpose the local economy so that it works for local people and protects the environment.

Take the £1 billion per year that public bodies in Ayrshire spend on procurement, for example. The strategy wants to see more of that money spent locally to sustain existing jobs and create new ones, but more fundamentally, we are seeking to spend it with companies underpinned by democratic ownership like co-operatives and worker-owned businesses. Ownership of the economy, and the wealth it creates, is, at the end of the day, more important than the perceived wealth that exists within an area. As socialists living in the fifth richest country in the world, we know that only too well.

In a similar vein, we want to use the land and buildings owned by those public bodies not as assets to be sold off to manage austerity, but for the common good, put into productive use through community ownership. Already we are seeing so many exciting projects coming forward whereby the community is taking ownership of council-owned land and buildings to turn them into community projects, many of which have been supported by our innovative Community Investment Fund, which, with £3 million funding, has been devolved to our six Locality Partnerships (made up of local elected members and community representatives) to spend on local priorities.

Our business support services no longer solely focus on businesses with supposed ‘growth potential’, but have been repurposed to actively support a thriving solidarity economy of new social enterprises, community interest companies, and co-operatives. One way of achieving this will be to actively support family-owned businesses, the majority of which have no succession plans in place, to convert to employee ownership.

And we have longer-term goals to democratise money through the creation of a mutually-owned Community Bank, by working towards our regional public sector pension fund, Strathclyde Pension Fund, by divesting from fossil fuels and gambling companies and moving towards a sustainable, direct investment strategy that directs funds into the economy in which its members live and work.

We are clear that our intention with Community Wealth Building is to signal an end to the traditional model of economic development that has left the UK, and indeed Scotland, ravaged with regional inequality. As a local authority, we are taking back economic control and giving it over to local people through collective ownership.

This approach is fundamental to ending the economic and social scars that have plagued our part of the country for too long. But it also key to meeting our target for a net-zero North Ayrshire by 2030.

Since coming to power, my administration has cut North Ayrshire’s carbon emissions by 28 percent. We have achieved that through initiatives such as putting solar panels on council buildings, shifting to LED lighting, a carpool scheme for council staff, and reducing single-use plastics – all good stuff, but nowhere near the scale of the changes we need to take if we are to protect the planet from climate change.

So, aligned to our Community Wealth Building strategy, we are ramping up our actions. We’ve recently approved plans to plant 108,000 new trees, with an associated programme to provide job and training opportunities for young people.

We’re are using the latest low-carbon technology in our new council house-building programme, learning from a sustainable demonstrator project that built zero-carbon houses. We have been running a programme to install solar panels onto existing council houses—with tenants retaining the benefits of reduced energy costs—and our most recent housing budget included £5 million to do more retrofitting work on our existing stock.

Most recently, my cabinet approved a council-owned solar farm that will generate 34 percent of the council’s (pre-Covid) energy needs and provide a financial surplus of almost £13 million, which will be reinvested in North Ayrshire. It’s an exciting project in itself, but it’s just the first of many. We have a second solar farm site under development and are exploring opportunities in wind power, hydrogen, and battery technology as we look to head towards our 2030 target and generate the sustainable income streams that can help shield us better from future central government austerity.

Never let it be said that local government cannot deliver change. It may be tough and unglamorous. You will receive more complaints about dog fouling and litter than you will about poverty in your community. You won’t be provided with the same status, platform, or pay as your counterparts in Parliament. But there is real power to be found in your local council chamber, and for all of us who got involved in politics to make a difference, that power is worth more than any perceived political clout. It’s time the Left got serious about local government, encouraged socialists to stand, and organised to win local power.

Joe Cullinane is the Labour leader of North Ayrshire Council.

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