Sharing a platform with ConHome and LabourList

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Yesterday I represented Lib Dem Voice on a panel with Conservative Home and LabourList. It was at the end of a conference organised by the New Local Government Network on the overall theme of localism and devolution to local government.  I was surprised and pleased that so many local government officers resisted the urge to slope off after the teabreak and stayed to hear the bloggers.

I had the huge advantage over my fellow bloggers of being a former councillor. By contrast, the other two had the luxury of being employed full-time as blog managers – although I have to say that I do enjoy being part of the LDV volunteer collective and the way we work as a team.

We had been asked to talk about our predictions for the General Election and what we thought the outcome would mean for local government. I pointed out that predictions for the number of Lib Dem MPs after May 7th have ranged from 11 to 48, and I could confidently say that the result would lie somewhere between the two … maybe. However, I gave more credence to the Lord Ashcroft’s surveys than any other, because he polls separately in each constituency, allowing for local factors and the incumbancy effect. As he said:

In the marginals research I ask the standard voting intention question – if there were a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for? – followed up with a second question asking them to think about how they will vote in their own constituency, considering the candidates likely to stand there. This generally produces a higher vote share for the Lib Dems, and in some cases a dramatic difference from the initial question.

I then explained that in Coalition Lib Dems actually achieved 75% of their manifesto – something that was picked up by Mark Wallace of ConHome. According to him, the Conservatives now feel they were bounced into a Coalition deal too quickly because of the perceived threat of negotiations between Labour and the Lib Dems, and that they now regret having allowed us to get away with so much. (Hmmm…)

He was also worried about what might happen next time if the arithmetic finds Lib Dems and Tories once again in negotiation. A significant drop in the number of Lib Dem MPs would, he thought, mean that Nick Clegg would resign as Leader, and then how could the Conservatives negotiate with a vacancy or an interim leader and no obvious candidate for DPM? (I did wonder to myself how many MPs the Tories had to lose to trigger Cameron’s resignation.)

Rather wistfully he talked about the possibility of the wider Conservative membership being involved in decisions about Coalition deals, but conceded that the Leadership probably thought that the term ‘wider membership’ referred to backbenchers.

Back to the theme of the conference, I outlined our guiding principles of subsidiarity and democratic accountability, then listed the key points in the pre-Manifesto (which had, of course, been agreed by party members):

We will:

  • Reduce the powers of the Department of Communities and Local Government to interfere in democratically elected local government in England.
  • Remove the requirement to hold local referenda for Council Tax changes in England.
  • Build on the success of City Deals and Growth Deals, to devolve more power and resources to groups of local authorities and local enterprise partnerships, starting with back to work support.
  • Introduce ‘Devolution on Demand’, enabling even greater devolution of powers from Westminster to councils or groups of councils working together (for example to a Cornish Assembly).
  • Establish a commission to explore the scope for greater devolution of financial responsibility to English local authorities, and new devolved bodies in England.
  • Strengthen community rights to run local public services [including libraries], and protect community assets such as pubs through the planning system and by bringing forward a Community Right to Buy.

If we find ourselves in negotiations, then that is what we will bring to the table for local government.

Mark Ferguson from LabourList said that localism was shaping up as a strong theme that united the his party, and he drew comparisons with the impetus for internal party reform and more grassroots involvement prompted by Peter Hain’s report on Refounding Labour.  We did get there first, of course … on both accounts.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames where she is still very active with the local party.

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4 Comments

  • Excellent article by Mary Reid.

    Localism has been the big myth of The Coalition Years.
    Check out DCLG expenditure in this handy Con Home chart —
    http://www.conservativehome.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/150210-Departmental-spending.png

  • Alex Sabine 11th Feb '15 - 6:10pm

    John: The coalition government’s record on localism has been patchy at best. But I’m not sure the reduction in the DCLG budget is the best evidence for this. Central government grants to local councils do not represent ‘localism’. Real localism would involve local government raising and spending the majority of its own revenue without a maze of Whitehall spending ringfences. On the other hand, capping council tax centrally (even if the consequence is understandably welcomed by council taxpayers) and telling local authorities how often they should be collecting the rubbish is powerful evidence of our absurdly centralised state…

  • Alex Sabine
    yes I agree. I have always been an advocate of local democracy raising its own funds through a range of taxation sources which will vary from place to place (as happens in many democratic countries).
    There is perhaps a role for National Government in providing additional funding to areas of great poverty. The principle however should be independent local democracy with powers to do whatever it is legal to do without having to seek permission from central government officials. A power of general competence should be the basis of local democratic organisation.

  • Tony Greaves 11th Feb '15 - 10:28pm

    Vision? Principles, even? A coherent programme? Something that means anything at all to 99% of people? As for tackling the fundamental practical problem which is control over resources (money).

    Where has it all gone?

    Interesting that even we now use the useless word “localism” instead of local democracy.

    John Tilley – one thing the Localism Act had done is give something quite near to a power of general competence. But no resources to make use of it.

    Tony

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