It seems that Labour is willing to throw local government in to further turmoil, should it regain power at the next general election. The Electoral Society has published a document written by a Labour lobby group, promoting proportional representation voting as the way to re-energise democracy in this country.
Labour is also revisiting the issue of two tier local government, something that will effect shire areas such as Lincolnshire. This would probably a good thing from the council taxpayers’ perspective, as it would remove some of the confusion and frustration they experience when dealing with two tier local government. However, it’s by no means clear that this is intended to make democracy more accessible and straightforward for the taxpayer, as opposed to just making it easier for Labour to gain power outside of their current urban strongholds.
Reading the document, it would appear that Labour are concerned about running out of the foot soldiers they need to get re-elected. As many of these foot soldiers come from those standing in local elections, the Party appears to have a cunning plan to create more Labour councillors (foot soldiers) across the country.
This sudden enthusiasm for PR could of course be intended as a sop to the Liberal Democrats, just in case Labour needs to go into coalition with them, to freeze out the Conservatives in 2015, if plan A, an outright majority, doesn’t come to pass.
Perhaps the Labour Party really does believe PR is the way forward and are seeking to collude with the LibDems to foist it on to the British public via the back door, or rather from the bottom up. Using local government as a guinea pig, they will impose it on to councils, already buckling under the weight of doing more than their bit to help reduce Labour’s deficit legacy. Looked at cynically, one could suggest that the extremely low turn out in local elections, makes councils an easy target for this experiment and that any outcry from existing councillors will gain little, if any, support from an apathetic public.
There are many reasons why we should be extremely wary of PR at the local government level. There are a plenty of examples of councils that are in a form of leadership limbo, due to being in no overall control, because no single group has the majority. Even when there is what might be called a controlling group there are examples of councils being controlled by single issue groups, rather then one with any particular political allegiance. Boston Borough Council had something called the Boston Bypass Party until 2011. In both cases, this effectively leaves a council with no political direction, or leadership and being run by its officers.
I would also suggest that PR will inevitably lead to the introduction of professional councillors. The PR system means that a councillor representing a particular minor group, gets allotted a seat in a division well away from where they are actually living. As such, they are likely to need a far greater level of administrative support and spend a much greater amount of time and effort dealing with issues. They will also claim a much higher level of expenses and ultimately, find themselves needing to become a ‘full time’ councillor.
The prospect is, that should Labour gain power, either totally, or in a coalition, all councils will become single tier across England. Additionally, in many areas the council will be in the political control of what is politely called, rainbow alliances, but could soon be more accurately be described as, ‘a herd of cats’.
The Labour Party position on unitaries
A senior shadow minister has hinted that Labour would revive unitary local government reorganisation.
Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Chris Leslie said in a speech to the Social Market Foundation thinktank that the government should work with councils that were already promoting unitary schemes, such as Leicestershire and Warwickshire.
“The previous Labour government helped local government to make efficiency savings. So we gave local authorities powers to merge and change their boundaries and in 2009 a series of local authority reorganisations brought together district and county councils and created new unitary bodies,” he said.
“Other changes in Devon, Exeter and Norfolk were in the pipeline but this government stopped those in their tracks and are continuing to resist local authorities’ proposals to unitaries.”
The earlier generation of county unitaries had delivered savings per head through efficiencies of £46 per person a year in Cornwall, £52 in Central Bedfordshire, £66 in Shropshire and £91 in Northumberland, Mr Leslie (pictured) said.
He said: “The government and Whitehall should be doing more to empower councils, that see from the bottom up the benefits of collaboration and are actively debating whether to come together. This should also include small district councils that are facing the greatest financial pressures of all.”
Mr Leslie, who was a junior local government minister under Labour and ran the New Local Government Network thinktank before he returned to Parliament in 2010, said he and shadow communities and local government secretary Hilary Benn would “continue to explore the full range of options to support councils as they share services, pool budgets, and choose to collaborate and integrate further”.
Local government minister Brandon Lewis contrasted Mr Leslie’s speech with reported remarks in which Labour policy co-ordinator Jon Cruddas appeared to rule out reorganisation.
He said: “The Labour Party are in disarray on unitary local government restructuring, ruling it out one week and calling for it the next.
“By contrast, the coalition government is very clear that restructuring would be expensive, divisive and time-consuming, diverting time from improving frontline services and locally-led co-ordination.
“Labour is motivated by partisan politics, doing what they think is best for Labour self-interest rather than what’s best for the country.”
Mr Leslie also said that English local government was “enduring eye-watering reductions in revenue support grant which are threatening basic activities in social services, housing, environmental services, libraries and local voluntary bodies”.
Labour’s Local Government Innovation Taskforce would examine how to orientate services “around users rather than necessarily sticking with the old – and expensive – bureaucratic way of working”, he said.