Labour has a double whammy in store for local government

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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’.

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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.

Labour making a grab for power from the bottom?

A letter in today’s edition of the Local Government First magazine, by a Cllr Cookson (Labour), advises all readers to prepare for Labour’s plans to impose proportional representation on to local government, once they are in power.
I believe that all non-Labour councillors should take this advice, but not for the reasons promoted in the Labour Party document.
An online search reveals that the Electoral Reform Society (not to be confused with the Electoral Commission) has decided to promote Labour’s viewpoint, by publicising the document on its website, suggesting that it might almost be viewed as more about the democratic process than actual politics.  Despite being in existence for over 100 years, the ERS has made little headway in their ambitions for proportional representation.  As such, it should come as no surprise to see them promote a political document supporting its introduction, all be it at the local government level initially.
It’s not actually my goal to argue for, or against the issue as such, but rather to advise all non-Labour councillors to take a look at this document, so that they can be on their guard should councillor Cookson’s Party ever return to power. Far from being a springboard to greater and more even local democratic representation for the electorate, it would appear that the main purpose for seeking any change, is to increase the numbers of Labour Party foot soldiers embedded in local government.
The document unashamedly states, ‘…..the effects of introducing a more proportional system for local elections are more likely to unite the party…….’. Admittedly, in its forward, the document does suggest that all parties (hence the lowercase reference to ‘the party’ I assume) could benefit in some way from such a change, but it is difficult not to see a far less magnanimous reasoning behind this proposal.
On the face of it, this looks like it could be a win, win situation for us all, especially the electorate.  However, my question is a simple one, if it’s that good and the document works hard to suggest that it is, why use local government as your guinea pigs?  Put another way, why not do unto yourselves first, as you would do to others? I also have a concern about the norm for local government becoming ‘no overall control’, if this were to happen.  So be warned fellow non-Labour councillors; they appear to have a cunning plan.

Desperation or inappropriate favouritism?

The latest bright idea from the coalition government, liberalised gambling laws, has an uncanny parallel with a similar bright idea of the previous Labour Government – 24 hour drinking.

The changes to the licensing laws have been an unmitigated disaster for our town centres, making them no-go areas at weekends, unless you are one of the thousands of 18-30’s determined to become hopelessly intoxicated and dangerously aggressive.

Changing the gambling laws won’t have the same type of negative impact as the changes to the drinking laws. However, making it even easier for the public at large to gamble to excess, will prove just as damaging in the long run. I can’t workout whether this is an idea born out of desperation to find a further source of deficit reducing revenue, or a sign of some sort of inappropriate favouritism, where looking after the financial interests of those who fund political parties and campaigns, takes precedent over everything else. I wonder how many expensive lunches it took the gambling industry to persuade ministers this was a good idea.

These proposals have been dressed up as localising control, giving councils the power to determine what happens locally. If its anything like the licensing laws, all it will do is impose yet another function on councils that are already struggling to maintain current services. The one thing it won’t do, is, as with the licensing laws, give councils the ability to say no, simply because they believe it would be bad for their community.

Whilst on the subject of lobbying, how long do you think it will take before ministers start releasing media statements, saying how good it would be for everybody if we retained the changes to Sunday Trading laws, currently only in place for the Olympics.

Ed Miliband – one trick pony?

Apparently Ed Miliband is being given plaudits for kicking the open goal that is the phone hacking scandal. Surely, unless he actually came out in support of Murdoch, it would be difficult for him not to be heard saying the right things wouldn’t it? Heaven help us if picking easy targets is all it takes to become a political leader.