The local elections on 4 May will be a personal and sad occasion for me. On that day, I will be the first person in four generations of my family to vote against Labour. The family voted Labour for as long as they had a vote and there was a Labour candidate standing. But what the party has done with town halls is such an affront to any conception of public representation that loyalty is stretched to and beyond breaking point.
It is often said that New Labour abandoned the socialism of Old Labour. In fact it only abandoned half of socialism: all that stuff about fairness and justice and equal opportunities, the revolutionary zeal to make the popular will manifest. Unfortunately, that was the bit I liked.
The New Labour project was to retain and surge forward with other aspects of socialist systems of government: the huge budgets on salaries and prestige projects; the centralisation of decision-making; the suffocating bureaucracy; the reliance on managers and party apparatchiks; the obsession with leaders. Oh, the worship of leadership, "strong local leadership" in the Deputy Prime Minister's words, as if politics consisted of nothing else.
This government imposed on us, with no public consultation, the 2000 Local Government Act. With this, the division between elected councillors and appointed officials has been blurred to the extent that none of them are representing the public, and all are managers of the same system that pays their salaries and supplies their pensions.
In the abandonment of socialism, there is a supposed embrace of the market system, carried out with every trick of presentation and jargon, glossy presentational brochures, bar charts and focus groups. What is not embraced is the very thing that makes the market system in any way admirable in the first place: providing value for money. The council tax bill has increased by 91 per cent in the past 10 years, during which time councillors have paid themselves vastly more for doing a job that used to be voluntary public service.
I have even witnessed that jewel of the old Eastern European justice system, a show trial: the humiliation of "working people and their families" by a flagship New Labour council in pursuit of a dubious policy goal. The council in question spent £600,000 to try to persuade council tenants to vote for their homes to be sold off. But the sell-off was stopped when tenants voted against. Instead of reassessing its housing policy in the light of public mistrust, the New Labour response was to attack those who campaigned against its failed sell-off.
The methods used were the manipulation of council procedures, unaccountable meetings, and legal threats. The council tenants' organisation was forced into liquidation. The organisation representing private tenants had been set up by working-class people to deal with their own bad landlords. It was a genuine, indigenous, grass-roots organisation full of lifelong Labour people. This private tenants' group was "tried" by a meeting at which allegations were made about the members behind closed doors which the accused were not allowed to know. In a Kafkaesque charade they were then invited in to give a defence to allegations, the terms of which they were ignorant.
The more cynical or conspiratorial folk believed the leading councillors involved were on the take, receiving a payoff from a housing company for selling off council homes on the cheap. I doubt this; I think they were just so blind to any concept of public service that their personal needs were perfectly satisfied with the pleasure of hitting a policy target. They had become management automata.
Of course, none of this ever went before a committee open to the public gaze and subject to questioning. Many councillors (who I suppose should be described as "Old Labour") protested at the injustice, but to no avail; as backbench members they had no power.
While this may seem like a little local story, it is not the scale of it but the mindset it reveals which appals. The attitudes it displays, with the gaping hole where there should be natural justice or even compassion, are so widely repeated across the country that it is a symptom of the system of local government that has been imposed on the town halls.
New Labour has lost the values that made the party worth supporting. It is simply no longer a vehicle for social progress. Indeed, there is evidence it is going in reverse. Goodbye, New Labour - now I'll vote strategically for any candidate willing to do something to restrain council arrogance.
The writer is the biographer of Tony Benn and the Nehru familyReuse content