What is wrong with the Labour Party?
This blog tries not to be party political as such. We’re perfectly happy to praise any politician when we agree with them and equally content with having a whinge when we disagree with them (or simply aren’t sure what they do!).
Thus, our blog tends to focus on things that are in the news or policies that are about to effect the sector. With this in mind the fact that we have not written a post about the Labour Party and local government since, well, ever probably tells its own story. Either we are all a bunch of raving Tories (unlikely), naively ignoring the good work of Labour on local government (possible) or Labour does really have a problem with their Local Government policy at the moment.
To illustrate this further I would like to play a little game with our readers; the same game I played with a Labour Party member friend of mine last week (she lost). Question 1: Can you name the Shadow Secretary of State for Local Government?
The answer is Hilary Benn MP; a former councillor in Ealing and now an MP for one of the Leeds constituencies.
Ok, so that was the easy question, and if I was Davina McCall I’d now be bragging about how clever people from West Dorset were and suggesting that ladies over 45 needed to buck their ideas up before breaking into question 2. Can you name the rest of the members of the shadow DCLG team?
I spend a lot of time (too much according to my wife) reading and writing about local government, and work in local government, and my sad confession is that I did not get a single one:
The answers are: Helen Jones MP (local government), Roberta Blackman-Woods MP (Planning), Jack Dromey MP (Housing), Chris Williamson MP (I don’t know) and for bonus points in the Lords we have Lord McKenzie of Luton and Lord Beecham.
If you got any of these then I’m not sure whether to congratulate you or to slightly pity you.
Now, I realise that this little game is a fairly petty one. It is not only the fault of the Labour shadow ministers that they are not well known; indeed, surely a more important trait is that these shadow ministers are saying the right things and developing a distinctive policy agenda for a local government sector going through a massive transition.
And it is on this point that I am not sure where the Labour Party stand.
I can understand the challenge. Over 13 years the Labour Government of Mr Blair and Mr Brown local government policy was managed using a careful mix of performance indicators, targets, ring fences and much needed cash. Budgets rose, councils were able to adopt a wider role in their communities and local government improved. However, all this came at the price of over-control from the centre which did lasting damage to the sector.
This makes it difficult for the Labour Party now. Whilst Eric Pickles has relished the opportunity to demolish ring fences, performance targets and the Audit Commission it has been difficult for Labour to criticise too much due to the fact that much of this was supported widely in local government and besides, Labour policy was starting to head in that direction at the end of the Brown years.
Equally challenging; areas of policy that are impacting local government at the moment such as changes to housing benefit, a response to the Dilnot commission or reforms to local government pay, pensions and conditions are attached to wider agendas and therefore often dealt with, often on a piecemeal basis, by other shadow ministers.
Taken together, and allied to the fact that Eric Pickles’ populism has been difficult to oppose effectively, I can understand why the Labour Party has struggled to develop a consistent and unique message for the local government.
However, this is not good enough. Local Government is going through an extremely tough period at the moment. It has always struggled to develop a distinctive sector wide response to problems and with the Liberal Democrats in coalition, if this is not being provided by the Labour Party then who will provide it?
What’s more for a party like the Labour Party local government should play a central role. Local government is well placed to implement many aspects of the progressive agenda that Labour stands for; indeed, in many areas of the country it is only Labour run local authorities that are providing that role.
So what would I do if I was advising Mr Benn and his cohort of probably talented, but largely unknown, ministers?
Well, this is probably the subject of a future post, or for someone else to say, but for now I’d say three things:
- Build on the start made at last year’s LGIU localism and austerity conference where Mr Benn started to draw lessons from the successful Labour administrations in local authorities around the country. This should go further than simply praising them. Labour should identify what impediments and challenges these local authorities are facing and should pledge solutions to make their innovation and good work simpler to achieve. Besides, Local government (and Wales) is the only place where Labour is in charge; focusing on the successes of Labour councils is not a bad place to start.
- Labour needs to create a distinctive narrative around the local government cuts. The party needs to ask why local government is facing steeper cuts than the rest of Whitehall. It needs to be really digging down into the impact these cuts are having; be they to social care, pot holes, council tax benefit, housing benefit, community centres, libraries or other services. It shouldn’t interfere with individual local decisions but taken together there is a bank of evidence that should say ‘focusing too much on local government and not sharing the pain a little more evenly is damaging the communities that make up the UK’ in a way that could be avoided.
- Labour’s shadow team should start considering what they want the settlement between local and central government to be after the next election. Graham Allen MP is a passionate advocate for a new settlement between local and national government with local authorities given a much more significant role. If the Labour party were to adopt something akin to this (or even something totally different) they would provide themselves with a framework from which a lot of other policies could be developed.
The Labour party should also start to become a firmer critic of Eric Pickles when he is wrong (which we think is fairly often) and start to tackle many of the longer term questions that face the sector.
It’s never going to be easy but it would be a start.
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