Time to be the Party of Local Government again

It’s local election time – indeed for someone, somewhere each April and May it is always a local election year. Of late, over the recent years you could be forgiven for not noticing – we Liberal Democrats have, somehow and for some reason, ceased to be “The Party of Local Government”.

For the first time in nearly a decade I have thrown myself back into the front line of party politics – so irritated am I by the body politic that I have concluded that locally, on my small patch of British, I might be the answer. So I am nominated to be a Liberal Democrat candidate for the Brockwell Ward of Chesterfield Borough Council. If it all goes wrong and I win (joke!) then I will be one of what we hope will be several gains from Labour in Chesterfield.

I am following a good tradition locally – the Ward has been previously held by Nicky Qazi, Roland Beckingham, Ray Russell and more. All giants of localism and liberal democracy in Chesterfield and indeed Derbyshire. Maureen Davenport is our sole remaining councillor in the three-member Ward and is defending her seat – Focus willing, we will re-elect Maureen and make two gains for the Liberal Democrats in this Ward.

Going door-to-door I have been struck at the conversations – lots of people want to talk about politics, but not about Brexit. There is a warm and gently delighted response to my message of localism, of can-do politics, of sorting out local issues. Indeed I joke on nearly every doorstep “that when I left home to come canvassing a General Election hasn’t been called yet”. To many voters, I have even explained that that requires the legislation put in place by Liberal Democrat MP, Andrew Stunell to prevent a Prime Minister just dissolving parliament has made a good check and balance to stabilise politics with the fixed term parliament act. However, the anger and the cynicism generated by Brexit remains.

One voter has offered to pour boiling water over me for our support of a second referendum and warned me to tell Labour canvassers that he has a more extreme form of hatred reserved for them. Indeed the venom focussed at remainers by leavers and pathetic depression at leavers from remainers is galling at best and at other items vicious.

So I have turned back to the politics I learnt when younger. I have been in this game for a mere 30 years learning from Tony Greaves, Tim Swift, Nick Winch Des Wilson, Maggie Clay and more. I learnt from them that it was about community politics not just liberal democracy – that localism was and is of itself a good thing. That politics of localism took longer, was more complicated, but gave you better solutions. That the Focus newsletter needed content, action, solutions and news – not just slogans, assertions and opinions. I found myself irritated the other day when I wanted to write a street special, and I had not heard from the relevant authority about my concern and issues that I wanted to report back on. You see I can’t write a leaflet unless I have something to say that is new, that improves my community and is a result of our collective efforts.

It is this action-based politics of the community that I think many of us have lost sight of. Community politics of the focus leaflet is not a tactic. Yes you get more votes the more leaflets you deliver, but you don’t get the change communities to need. If you delivery community politics where you see a problem and sort it and tell voters about that, then they will vote for you on a sustained basis. Indeed it was Councillor David Rogers in Sussex I think, who was virtually the sole Liberal gain in one year of local elections across the country, as our party leader was on trial for attempted murder at the Old Bailey. David won because he knew, believed in and enacted the philosophy of community politics.

I don’t know what will happen between now and May and I may or may not win. However, if I do it will not be because of the leaflets or the winning streak of the Liberal Democrats alone. If we win, it will be because of the community politics that this party used to believe, teach and train if Brockwell turns gold then it’s down to community politics right and proper. That will be thanks to people now older, and in many cases gone – Cllr Martin King in Adur, Cllr Ann Shaw in Three Rivers, Cllr Gil Street of Dorset, Cllr Martin Smith of West Bromwich, Cllr Bob Pritchard of Leicester and many others before. If we win, it will be down to their teaching, stubbornness, and yes liberalism that I learnt from them. The focus is my toolkit, but it is not our sole hope.

I have invested in community politics and local government, and I desperately hope for the body politic that this party might do so again. Nothing else will counter the cynicism, nothing else will dig us in deep – and nothing else gets the changes and benefits our communities crave. Perhaps a party of local government might be fashionable again.

* Ed Fordham is a councillor on Chesterfield Borough Council and runs Brockwell Books of Chesterfield, selling many thanks, not least ephemera he bought from Liber Books over the last 25 years.

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  • nigel hunter 27th Mar '19 - 5:02pm

    I do not know what problems you have in Chesterfield but small businesses provide revitalisation in communities,high streets.You could ask people for ideas to stimulate the area. I was surprised to find out that the business rates that are charged to companies is ‘robbed ‘ by Govnt who keep 25% of it. If this could be brought back it could help community development.

  • Tony Greaves 27th Mar '19 - 5:11pm

    Yes. Yes. Yes. (Can’t think of much else to say). David Rodgers was in Brighton in 1977. He was the only gain from the Tories in a three-way fight (there was one somewhere in the Weald, I think, in a straight fight). We won 90 seats in the County elections that year as the Tories swept the country (In Lancashire the Tories won 83 out of 99 seats – with 12 Labour and just one Liberal (me)). It was good to chat with David at York.

    (The Thorpe trial was not until 1979 but it had all been rumbling on and Thorpe had resigned as Leader in 1976.)

    But for Ed’s basic message: Yes, Yes, Yes. Adapt to modern times, use social media – but as a supplement, a back-up, to getting out the Focus leaflet full of good things, not empty branding.

  • Do you really believe that? Wow… I have never known local government held in such low esteem by the party than now…

  • That was a comment to Hugo apols for not being clearer

  • Totally agree Ed, and it’s great to see you back in the fight.
    What we need to remember is that the party membership has changed enormously in the last 5 years or so. During the coalition we sadly lost so many of the stalwarts of the 70s, 80s, 90s and 00s – who knew and understood what community politics was all about. But we gained loads of new, younger members in these big waves (after Clegg’s resignation speech, then after the Brexit vote). The new crowd are great, and full of energy. But they don’t necessarily have that in-built knowledge about Focuses and ALDC campaigns. That’s not their fault – why should they know what they haven’t been taught? So the thing is for the party to get back to Training and developing, enthusing local parties again about what community politics is and why it matters. The troops are there. They just need to be led.

  • John Marriott 27th Mar '19 - 6:53pm

    Whatever power you gain in local government is emasculated by the insidious creep of centralisation. We have reached a point now where local councils are generally treated with ambivalence by large swathes of the electorate and as a convenient human shield by central government against public reaction to the cuts in public services that austerity has brought. Is being a big fish in an ever smaller pond really worth aspiring to?

    Being the ‘party of local government’ means being very much the poor relation in the political family. We need REAL devolution as soon as possible. This means giving power back to local councils to make decisions, raise funds and, if they get it wrong, to be answerable to their electorate. I have talked about the need for reform of both the structure and finance of local government before. I won’t bore you with a repetition now.

    Best of luck, Ed, in your campaign. What happened to that promise to come to the aid of Lincolnshire after the Parliamentary By Election a few years ago? I suppose that Chesterfield is more fertile ground.

  • Thanks John,

    For devolution to happen does rather need a political party who knows local government, understands it, fights for it and wants to devolve to it – and that currently we are not.

    I was out in Lincolnshire helping with local elections last year, have done training there this year – how about you as one of the leading lights of Lincolnshire liberalism over many years?

  • John Marriott 27th Mar '19 - 7:37pm

    @Ed Fordham
    Fair point. However, that party has got to have a few more than 11/12 MPs in Parliament to make it happen.

    As for my current situation, I am now retired from active politics. I decided last year not to renew my membership, as I was totally disillusioned with the way the local party has approached campaigning in recent years. I think I demonstrated, as a councillor for thirty consecutive years, how to win in Lincolnshire. That means a lot more than just delivering a few leaflets or knocking on doors at election time. Mind you, I reckon that some were happy to see the back of me.

    I’m still interested in politics, witness my LDV contributions in recent years. However, as they say in the House of Commons, my comments are now made almost entirely ‘ from the sedentary position’.

  • Graham Jeffs 27th Mar '19 - 7:42pm

    Great article. May I put in yet another plea for the curse of multi-member wards to be eradicated? For example, where I live the ward consists of three very clear and different communities. It is a three seat ward, all seats coming up for election this May. Why should the overwhelmingly Conservative vote where I live influence the outcome for the other two communities?

    People are far less likely to engage with local elections if the structure for those elections is increasingly remote. No doubt it might take more skill and sensitivity to divide up these unnecessarily large wards – but community representation really would benefit.

  • Phil Wainewright 27th Mar '19 - 9:21pm

    Best of luck in Brockwell, Ed. I would say that we have to be the party not just of local government but of community empowerment. That is rightly expressed through serving local communities – but with the goal of helping people solve their local problems, not just being a general-purpose fixer.

    It also means joining this up to national policies of supporting PR in multi-member wards so that local government becomes representative of all its citizens, and ensuring that local government has the resources and powers to fund solutions to local issues. Of course we need more than a dozen MPs to implement these changes, but it’s part of the same thread of community empowerment.

    It’s a real tragedy that this connection between local empowerment and national policy was neglected during the Coalition years. I believe it’s at the heart of what distinguishes our party from generic centrists – empowerment of all communities, those defined by geography, and many others too.

  • Great article Ed,
    Good luck in Chesterfield, hopefully Cheshire West will cease to be a LD black hole in May but much to do to achieve that. I’m now off out to sort out the final nominations in our weak wards (and there are too many of them), but we’ve all been there!

  • Steve Comer 28th Mar '19 - 4:21pm

    Well said Ed – and good luck in the elections!
    Graham said multi-member wards were a problem, well this cuts both ways. Generally I think they are a good thing as it means you can promote a Focus Team as opposed to just one local hero. I served for 10 years as a Councillor in 2-seat wards with two different co-Councillors, and 2 years as a solo Councillor (my fellow Councillor having lost in the ‘Coalition cull’ of Lib Dem Councillors in 2011).
    The last two years were the worst, I liked working with someone else. You can bounce ideas off each other, and it also meant that when I went in the Cabinet and the LGA the ward work didn’t suffer. I used to take the lead in producing Focus, and my colleague did most of the distribution to deliverers.

    The real answer is to have multi-member wards elected by STV as in Scotland. But we lost the chance of that in the Coalition negotiations when the electoral system for Local Government was never mentioned! I think there may be a chance to get this in a future NOC Parliament, but we will need to treat local government as a priority not an afterthought.

  • Graham Jeffs 29th Mar '19 - 8:15am

    Steve – I’m not against local heroes! Communities need to feel that they can elect their own really local representative for their local community rather than two or three often faceless and remote individuals for an administratively convenient slab of nothing in particular. Would we want to embrace the concept of five MPs being elected for a County on FPTP?

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