Richard Kemp writes… We can’t go on like this

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My comments at the Lib Dem Conference that we need to strike a new balance between the parliamentary and councillor wings of the party has clearly struck a chord with councillors.

The immediate reason for my outburst was the way that the police debate had been approached by the Parliamentary Group – well, to be fair, we should not blame them all too much. This paper was discussed under ‘any other business’ at a shadow cabinet meeting. Most MPs had not seen it until the week before conference. Although conference delegates had seen the resolution when the agenda was published, the paper that lay behind it was available only the night before – and it showed.

Councillors were not at all concerned about the direction of the paper or the philosophy which underpinned it. Our concern is that the ‘thing’ that we have agreed won’t work, and shows a woeful ignorance of how to convert theory into practice. We deliver that practice and we know how to make it work!

There are many reasons that localism is failing, and a lack of democracy is only one of them. Far more important is the fact that services within and without local authorities are run in silos by specialists. Electing those silos will not help join services around the needs of individuals or communities but entrench the silos. Having more elected bodies will lead to turf wars about supremacy, and will make it for more different to join up service providers around one long-term and coherent direction for the town, county or city.

Indeed two members of the Lords did not seem to understand what was before them. Lord Dholakia and Baroness Harris both said that councils would not be suitable to take responsibilities for police because there would be too much politics. But if they are elected bodies won’t there be politicians involved? Even if politicians like ourselves do not stand (and I have asked them if that is what they mean) then the elected members will become non-party politicians because they will be exercising priorities and suggesting direction – just what politicians do in the real world.

Outside this particular debate we might be making some progress. I have agreed to meet three separate groups of parliamentarians when the House resumes, and David Laws (as head of the public services team) is making arrangements with us for regular meetings with group leaders. Some MPs are good at consulting and involving. Our education and transport teams have regular joint meetings and conferences, and are good at making sure the Party speaks as one. Others become pompous and distant within seconds of being elected and do not respond to approaches from councillors, either officially or unofficially.

At the end of the day the Paper was passed because the big guns were brought out. Indeed, members of the Parliamentary Party were paged three times to get them to vote. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. We have agreed a paper that won’t work, and which we won’t be in a position to introduce for a minimum of 12 years. We did so by alienating the only people in the Party who could deliver it and who now feel antagonistic to most of the Paper’s otherwise good features.

* Cllr Richard Kemp is Leader of the Local Government Association Liberal Democrats.

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  • What was the input of Chris Huhne’s local councillors in Eastleigh to the proposal?

  • Richard, er, I downloaded the paper from the party website sometime in August. Check your facts before making accusations.

    (Admittedly, I was looking to make an amendment, which was done and drafted in, though as the debate was incredibly poorly run, and neither I nor any speaker was called to speak on it, nobody would have noticed)

    Yes, there does need to be a new balance struck between Parliament and local government. But local government does not mean the small elite involved in the Local Government Association, but the vast majority of Liberal Democrats in local government who are not running the administration.

    It will be interesting if David Laws’ meetings with group leaders get anywhere. As a group leader I think I’ve received about 1 mailing from ALDC and the LGA Group combined since May.

  • Neil Bradbury 20th Sep '08 - 7:18pm

    I would add to this that our MEPs are not kept “in the loop” enough about policy development, even when it concerns the EU. Cowley st appears to have little knowledge of the work that they are doing, even when they have pioneered legislation which directly impacts on policy proposals for the party nationally.

  • Richard Kemp 22nd Sep '08 - 11:06am

    Gareth is right to say that the paper was available on the web site. However most people were not aware of this or made aware of it so a paper not availabale to most is of little use. Of course there are some poor Lib Dem councillors and groups. This is why we have established a Lib Dem Improvement Board with the assistance of relevant parts of the Party and outside agencies to try and work with groups in opposition or control with probelsm or opposrtunities. Lib Dem councillors in Eastleigh tell me that that they had informed Chris that they disagreed with the resolution and I know that most of them at conference voted for the amendment.

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