First published on ProgressOnline
Actor Paul Higgins moves seamlessly from foul-mouthed and over-confident Downing Street operator in the Thick Of It to his latest role as contorted local councillor in Jack Thorne’s latest play, Hope. Always the bridesmaid and never the bride, Higgins is number two this time to cold Labour council leader Hilary (played by Stella Gonet) rather than hothead Labour apparatchik Malcolm Tucker.
The play revolves around the huge and desperate cuts that Eric Pickles and his colleagues have forced on local government. It looks at the trials and tribulations of a council having to find £22m of cuts in the coming year. All trying to do the right thing, many hours are spent trying to choose one cut over another. It all turns sour when a day centre for disabled people gets axed. Run by the ex-wife of the deputy leader, she is able to use her foot in both worlds to rally anti-austerity forces locally and nationally. The council backs down and it only gets worse.
In a turn of events that has not happened in any Labour group to date, backbencher Sarwan (ably played by Rudi Dharmalingam) organises an uprising and forces the council leader to not set a budget. Central government steps in – well, you know the rest.
All the way through I am thinking ‘Where is Joe Goldberg?’ The bombastic cabinet member in Haringey came into his own when the hard left was seriously asking Labour councils to repeat this failed experiment of the 1980s. Goldberg undertook a truly brilliant piece of work. He went though areas of the council’s budget that central government commissioners would cut and are only protected because Labour councillors are in charge. The living wage was one – paying people fairly, but over the market rate, would be seen as wasteful by Pickles’ axe-men and -women. There are lots more besides, all of which taken for granted by many of our own side but each surviving because of active decisions by Goldberg and his Labour colleagues. In the play you see civil service tender out important services as fait accompli; all the characters can do it watch.
With Gonet having recently ended a run in Handbagged, her character seems to have some of the determination that singled out the Iron Lady. While a strong leader she misses many of the qualities that have been on display from Labour council leaders in abundance this parliament: the reforming zeal that has transformed services locally and set a blueprint for Labour nationally. All of Britain’s big cities except Bristol and many of London’s local authorities are run by Labour leaders reforming services, making huge efficiencies and even bigger innovations. They have provided much inspiration to Jon Cruddas’ policy review and to a new desire for localism. They do us proud.
Having seen the play Labour’s Hilary Benn calls it ‘a moving story about good people trying to do the right thing’. The anguish at the heart of the characters does a great job at honouring the role of our councillors and tough decisions they encounter every day.
Empathy for their plight, yes; sympathy, no. While making cuts is hard, the lesson of the play and the years preceding 2010 is that not making the decisions is harder. The councillors in Hope paid the price by taking the path of least resistance. Let it be a lesson to the Labour movement and the public that opting out of tough choices has never been a Labour way.
Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets @RichardAngell
Hope runs at the Royal Court, London SW1 until 10 January 2015