Last night’s meeting of Islington Full Council to set the Council Tax for the next year sounds like it was quite a lively affair.
At first appearance, the Labour group seem to have been the winners. They managed to overturn the wafer-slender numerical superiority of the controlling Lib Dems (the position is currently 23 Lib Dem, 23 Labour, one independent former Lib Dem, and one Green) to get their budget proposals agreed in place of the official one proposed by the (Lib Dem) Council Executive. Such a victory has been on the cards ever since the 2006 local election results returned a tiny majority for the Lib Dems (figures as above but before the former Lib Dem became a former one). But nevertheless this is something of a cause for celebration for them. At least when I was attending Council meetings, Labour managed to get all 23 of their 23 councillors to turn up to every Full Council meeting. This is no mean Whipping achievement, what with councillors’ other commitments in life and when time after time they miss other (surely more enticing) engagements to turn up at the Town Hall, only to lose every vote, time after time. But - at least at one level - it came good for them last night and for the first time since 2006 (and indeed since 1999) won a major vote in the Council chamber.
But I can’t help feeling that some of their more thinking Councillors might have wondered - privately - this morning, where that has left them in the longer term. Fun and games in the Council chamber may keep people like them and on occasion, yes, I admit it, me, entertained and amused. But to most people it is not even tomorrow’s chip paper - it is simply not interesting at all - just something that happens on another planet.
But what non-political obsessives do most certainly care about is how much of the money they get every week or every month they have to hand over to the government or the Council. And what last night did establish for residents here is that Islington Labour have put your Council tax up. For many people this is one of the very very few things that the Council does that they notice - which makes it all the more unfortunate (if you are Labour) that this is the only action on the Council that they have got successfully implemented for almost ten years.
Was this really the strategic move that Islington Labour wanted to make? Because this is an issue with some considerable history: Labour have spent years now trying to overturn their reputation for being high taxers here in Islington.
When Labour last ran the Council, in the late 1990s, Islington had the highest Council Tax in the capital. The then opposition Lib Dems made considerable political success out of this, and Labour charging you too much Council Tax was (along providing very poor services, and a range of other things) one of the major weapons they were able to use almost to win control at the 1998 elections (the result was 26-26) and then actually to do so in a byelection the following year.
To reinforce that political gulf, the by-now-ruling Lib Dems then cut the Council Tax for three years running (in 2000, 2001 and 2002). And since 2002 they have pledged to keep it below the London average which they have done. More recently the Labour group have even copied this latter pledge and this seemed to take the level of Council Tax out of the Islington political arena as a major issue. Labour have made much of saying that they have changed and are different now to the late 90s - and specifically that they are more financially responsible.
All of which makes it all the more striking that Labour have now taken this dramatic step which stains their hands afresh with the association with high Council Tax here.
I’m sure this wasn’t what they had planned - and indeed a party doesn’t just put up Council Tax for the sake of it: it does it in order to pay for some additional services. In this case Labour put forward this position in order to introduce free school meals - and also a Council Tax discount for pensioners: you can read the details on their website. They presumably think this is in itself the right thing to do; the Lib Dem group disagree and have a set of reasons why they think it is not the best use of taxpayers’ money. This may be the right or wrong thing to do, in itself.
And also considered more narrowly as a political calculation, free school meals would presumably normally be a popular thing to do - as most promises to spend more money on something are (especially when they involve children!). And Labour are understandably very pleased to have got their proposal through and I wouldn’t expect them to say anything that detracts from that publicly.
But I can’t help wondering if - privately - some of them don’t wonder if getting through these one or two spending commitments in specific areas were worth it to sacrifice their many years trying to distance themselves from exactly this kind of political positioning, as tax and spenders. They won the vote last night but the real prize - what they are surely really after and which will really allow them to have an impact on Islington - is winning control of the Council in next year’s elections. Some of them will be aware today that associating themselves with high taxing has cost them dear in the past at the ballot box, and is surely unlikely to help them in these recession-hit times.
Is free school meals for children worth more votes than continuing your efforts of the last few years to distance yourself from high taxing? Make your own judgement.
Personally, I can see that it will be popular with those who benefit directly: those parents whose children do not already receive free school meals. But I don’t think its positive impact will be felt much beyond that group. Increasing Council Tax will be felt by much more people directly - and perhaps even more importantly it is seen by almost all as emblematic of a party’s general approach. The recession and the generally very low level of Council Tax rises this year, especially in London, will also affect the way it plays politically - as will the campaign that the local Lib Dems have been running over the last few weeks for a Council Tax freeze, deftly re-associating themselves with their traditional low Council Tax position.
“Islington Labour means high Council Tax” was a successful political weapon for their opponents ten years ago, and one that last night the Labour group took down off a shelf, dusted down and put back in their hands again.