Will Labour Councillors Fight for Democracy? The Case of the Soulsby Vs the Highfields Community Association

Yesterday the Leicester Mercury (December 1) reported that the Highfields Community Association (HCA) had commissioned a report, called In Search of Good Faith, “to look at the troubled dealings it has had with the council since it achieved independence from the authority in 2010.” The article noted how the author of this independent report, professor Gus John…

“…said that prior to 2010, when Labour’s Sir Peter was elected as the city mayor, there was transparency over the way decisions were made at the council, but added: ‘That’s not the way the city is run these days.’ …

“He also said he interviewed seven Labour city councillors who he said were cautious about talking openly. ‘They seemed to be walking on eggshells and looking over their shoulders,’ said the professor. ‘There seemed to be a climate of fear.’ None of them wanted to be drawn on matters criticising Sir Peter, he said.”

Thus, in addition to Sir Peter’s ongoing distortions on the nature of the relationship between the Highfields Communication Association and his Council, professor John’s independent report draws attention to the severe democratic deficit accompanying the role of Leicester’s City Mayor.

Although not detailed in the Mercury article, professor John explained that all seven Labour city councillors “were agreed that HCA is the major provider of services to the communities of Highfields and has served Highfields well over the last 30 plus years.” In addition, “Three of those councillors have had life-long dealings with the Highfields Centre, most having been users of the Centre at various stages of their life.” Two of the councillors had even formerly served as chairs of the HCA’s management committee/governing body at one time or other.” In summarising his interviews with these councillors, professor John concluded:

“Interestingly, some councillors talked about Peter Soulsby and Leicester City Council synonymously, as if they were not separate entities.  They displayed palpable fear of Mr Soulsby and of the consequences for themselves if they were to ‘go against him’ in any way.

“Those who disagreed with the way the City Mayor had dealt with HCA and especially the way the Mayor had used the media to discredit the management and governors of HCA felt ‘it would be suicide’, as one put it, if they were to go to other local councillors and suggest that they work in unison to intervene with the Mayor.  For one thing, they felt there was not enough trust among them as a group of local councillors and that people would not be above shafting one another in order to retain or gain favour with Peter Soulsby.  They cited examples of what they called ‘divide and rule strategies’ they had experienced both when Mr Soulsby was leader of the council and even more so since he became Mayor.  The impression I formed, therefore, was that most of those councillors were constantly looking over their shoulders while walking on eggshells in their dealings with one another, with council officers and with their constituents.”

These unflattering descriptions of the antidemocratic actions of City Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby should hardly be surprising considering Soulsby’s recent and very vocal attacks upon the legitimacy of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. The problem seems to be that Soulsby is not too fond of democracy, and especially Corbyn’s commitment to the basic socialist principles which make him so popular with the membership of the Labour Party (if not with the Blairite MPs and councillors who continue to dominate the Party). Tragically this leads professor John to write:

“As far as Leicester City Council is concerned, the picture emerging from this review is that of a city run not by a Council of elected representatives/councillors who make decisions collectively in the interest of the entire city, having regard to their duty to uphold the law and to discharge their statutory responsibilities, preferably with a sense of moral purpose, but by one person to whom everyone else answers, including elected councillors.”

This fundamental lack of democracy is but one reason why Leicestershire Against the Cuts previously campaigned (albeit unsuccessfully) to initiate a local referendum to allow the people of Leicester to have a democratic vote on whether we even want a City Mayor (Leicester Mercury, 22 April 2014). And, at the time, it was argued that “Removing the city mayor position in itself will not solve all the problems. But it at least gives us a system more responsive to people’s needs.”

Unfortunately an undemocratic shadow is still being cast over the city by Sir Peter Soulsby. But this gloomy past can now be thrown into the light by the resurgent socialist membership of the Labour Party. This is an impending threat that Soulsby is acutely aware of, hence his opposition to everything Corbyn and principled socialists stand for, particularly their principled opposition to Tory austerity.

Since the people of Leicester elected 52 Labour Councillors to the city’s 54 possible local government seats, the political landscape in Britain has undergone massive changes. So now these local Labour councillors have a unique opportunity to stand alongside the swelling grassroots of their party in opposing the bullying New Labour-old hands like Soulsby. For a start they could begin afresh by fighting cuts to services in their local communities by uniting in their refusal to carry through further Tory cuts in our city!



Professor Gus John notes: “everyone except the City Mayor appears to be operating ‘under manners’ (Jamaican slang meaning under heavy discipline or punishment).  The Mayor’s word is final and Scrutiny Commissions could meet if they wish, but there is ‘absolutely no prospect’ of him changing his mind. Senior officers could work sensitively, diligently and collaboratively with whomsoever they please, but if the Mayor chooses to ignore their efforts and indulge his prejudices by proclaiming falsehoods, they could do nothing about it. Senior officers cannot speak about their work with an organisation and share their views about the interface between that organisation and the City Council unless the Mayor directs them so to do. Even when the Council reneges on its legal undertakings to the detriment of a local organisation, local councillors advise against legal challenges out of fear of the Mayor’s reaction and the backlash that might be visited upon that organisation and doubtlessly upon themselves if it were to be known that they encouraged the organisation to exercise its rights.”

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