Unless you are an avid reader of the Online Guardian, you probably missed this interview with Keith Wakefield – Labour Leader of Leeds City Council – which appeared in its Professional section this week.image_gallery

If so, that’s a shame, and you should make sure to read it in full.

The autobiographical bits are revealing. Keith Wakefield has come up the hard way – in care in Birmingham as a boy, he’s a man who has experienced poverty first hand. He knows what it’s like to sleep rough, or be jobless.

Perhaps it’s experiences like this which have made him such a committed fighter against this Coalition’s welfare reforms. Leeds has been at the forefront of the struggle against the Bedroom Tax.
His understanding of what the Coalition Government’s policies are doing to the poor comes across strongly.
He’s ready to speak out for the sort of people our right-wing Government – and media – are cynically stigmatising as ‘benefit-scroungers’.
“I realise that it isn’t popular to say this, but the vast majority of people on benefits are working or want to work. Our job is to give them aspirations and opportunities and not ghettoise them in our cities.”

He sees the Bedroom tax as morally wrong – but also economically stupid. It will force people out of housing they can afford into higher-rent private accommodation.
“People will look back on this [welfare reform] and think the state were willing to punish those who are poor. When everything has calmed down and people think deeper they will see that this is wicked.”

He’s worried about loan-sharks, and wishes Local Government had more powers here.

In fact he’s a great advocate of devolving power back to Local councils. As we’ve reported before, he has highlighted the North/South divide in funding allocations, and the acute problems the Coalition’s changes in Local Government financing are producing.
And he’s keen to see real powers, including funding powers, return to the regions.

His ambition is clear – it is to make Leeds a great city, and a less divided city. “Many strong European countries and cities have to tackle inner city poverty”, he says. “A more divided city is a less cohesive city.”

All-in-all this is a thoughtful piece, and one which inspires confidence in the quality of Leeds local government under Councillor Wakefield.

It’s one which reminds you of the commitments which still lie at the heart of the Labour movement.

And it’s one which strengthens the arguments for real democracy – rooted in local control and a local voice – not this Government’s travesty of devolved powers which goes under the name of ‘localism’.


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