R.Hubbard (a personal view)

Let’s not be cynical.  Good news.  We have heard today that, this week, Sheffield Central Constituency Labour Party (CLP) has passed a motion calling for a change to the ‘strong leader’ model at Sheffield City Council.  This is very, very welcome.

Of course, the Lib Dems and Greens in our city (along with some independent parish councillors, Yorkshire Party reps, UKIP councillor, and Women’s Equality Party activists in Sheffield) have all voiced support for a change to a modern committee system.  And they have voiced support for the community-led Sheffield People’s Petition, coordinated by It’s Our City!  They have also taken various practical actions to support this change.

But, whilst of course we know that many Labour Party members want to see the end of the strong leader model – they are out campaigning with us for goodness sake, and lots have signed – formal CLP motions are significant.  Actually, we also understand that some time ago, Hallam CLP may, too, have actually passed a motion seeking the end of the strong leader model (although I think they may have got mixed up on some of their wording at the time, and I’m not sure how/if this was ever resolved).

But, in these dog-days of Brexit political tribalism – who would have thought it – here in Sheffield we might be in danger of a cross-Party consensus breaking out.  How good is that?  Whatever the particular political analysis – a shared desire for better local democracy, a shared recognition that the WAY decision-making works actually really matters, a shared understanding that the ‘strong leader’ model hasn’t been going well (to say the least), and that it just isn’t a good ‘fit’ for Sheffield.  The breakout of cross-party consensus – and an (albeit perhaps sketchy at this stage – it’s early days) vision for change – a modern Committee system. 

This is very good news for voters and communities across the city, seriously.  And we do want to continue to remind that it is people (everyone) not parties, that are served by politics.  And there is reason to hope, then, for all of us working for this change of governance, that when it comes it will be supported, so sustainable.  And of course it is good news for the many community groups, networks and campaigns who have felt themselves marginalised, under-valued, unrepresented, and even punished in very real ways.  This, by what is perceived as the closed and top-down decision making of the hand-picked and mere handful of our apparently ‘top-dog’ councillors (despite us voting for 84 elected representatives) who currently wield all the decision-making power.

There are implications of CLP motions for change.  On the back of them, one important initial stage is for the political parties to be able to acknowledge positively their shared aspirations in respect of improving local democracy, for a move to modern committee governance.  This certainly might happen in a whole number of ways, mostly involving dialogue.  And let it be open and continuing, let’s open up the governance agenda properly.  And, yes, it does also have to involve communities!  Some areas, for example, have ended up undertaking pretty comprehensive local governance reviews, working cross-party and utilising expertise, and evidence.  So, political parties – we are watching your space.  For CLPs, in particular, we are looking at how you ‘activate’ your commitment.  Better governance – in this case a modern committee system to replace Sheffield’s increasingly bizarre ‘strong leader’ model – is not the ‘gift’ of one political party.  Like I said, let’s not be cynical, let’s be positive.

Of course, there is a bit of a problem.  One, or perhaps two, CLPs formally recognising and voicing their support for removing the strong leader model in our city does not equate to change imminently on the way.  This applies even when it’s the big Sheffield Central (and Sheffield Hallam) CLP involved, and even when Paul Blomfield MP is in attendance as I understand he was at this latest CLP meeting.  (Mr Blomfield is long-rumoured to have far more influence over local council politics than might be apparent.)

The problem is, CLPs have no jurisdiction over the way our local, labour-led council works.  And this is certainly not the first time that local labour branches/CLPs have been notably out of step with their Labour counterparts in the Council, not by a long shot.  The road from constituency labour parties to the labour council seems not only long and winding, it might as well be completely blocked by, um, a felled street-tree.

The good news is that it is communities who have rights here, under the Localism Act, 2011.  It is the Localism Act that provides the mechanism whereby local voters have legal rights to actually make change happen.  Sheffield People’s Petition has legal force.  It is not about political parties, it is about communities, all of Sheffield’s diverse communities.  And changes to local council governance that might at first appear simply a bit boring, and that many people understand little about in the first instance – well, surprise, surprise, they resonate pretty strongly with virtually all those across the city who It’s Our City! campaigners are talking to.  That’s good news too.  It will be the voters of Sheffield signing Sheffield People’s Petition who will be the vital ingredient for change-making.

Far be it that any one political party might attempt to take the credit, or want, to make political capital out of the committed work of community campaigners, and of all the 20,092 signatures for change that will be presented this summer to our city council.  Communities in Sheffield are much, much bigger than individual political parties.  As a community, not party, led campaign we are showing – in a very practical way – that communities (beyond parties) are vital for the well-being of local democracy.  Some of us feel that we are coming from a quite a long way back in our city.  And many of us know that austerity, and decimating local authority cuts, make community action even more vital. 

We absolutely welcome the fact that political party groupings support the broad-based community action we are taking through Sheffield People’s Petition.  And we welcome the fact that constituency labour parties (despite the inevitable ambivalence this must throw up given a labour-led council) want to publicly declare they, too, want to see an end to the strong leader model.  But absolutely let’s not forget, that this change is not about parties, it is about all of us.

So let’s be practical.  It is communities acting in concert that own the mechanism for change here.  It’s all about those signatures.  That means – please sign and share Sheffield People’s Petition, party members or no.  And we will particularly welcome CLPs putting their money where their mouth is, and doing this too.  It’s Our City! will be presenting the petition – signed by at least 5% of Sheffield registered voters – this summer.

It’s great that political parties also want to see change in council decision-making.  I therefore also really look forward to seeing – and to communities really feeling the benefit of – increasingly collaborative conversations and approaches to our shared city life.  For more progress, I also look forward to public declarations by labour councillors themselves who want to see this change, and likewise from local election candidates of all hues.  All this would begin to demonstrate a bit of understanding of what this really is all about.

RH 29.3.19.