Party time

By Liam Booth-Smith and Paul Wheeler | 21 September 2016

A party conference is actually quite an impressive affair. Politics at its most professional and amateur in equal measure, writes Liam Booth-Smith.

The set piece speeches, the confluence of money and media, the sheer maddening concentration of everything. All blended with the activist base, free refreshment and candid conversation. It’s a political miracle that so much policy can come out of something Labour spinner and writer Damian McBride accurately described as an ‘18-30’s holiday in suits’.

So what can local government expect from this year’s Conservative Party Conference?

Given that 2015 gave us business rates retention, we might need to temper our expectations this year, if for no other reason than the fact both Theresa May and Sajid Javid have been pretty consistent with their messaging. Housing, devolution and economic growth is what they want to do business on with councils.

Government has given some signals around housing flexibility in the last two weeks. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see ministers announce a shift in starter home allocations, particularly given Gavin Barwell’s recent comments that the Government needs to consider broader forms of tenure.

The Government remains committed to finding ways of bringing more SME developers into the fold. Since the 1980s, the proportion of houses built by SME developers has more than halved. The Lyons Review specifically identified the ‘volume of builders’ as a concern and government could offer sweeter deals on finance and planning to help de-risk the market for SME developers.

Sweating brownfield sites will likely remain a priority, as will neighbourhood planning. A less well developed area of thinking is ‘off site’ development, where housing units are manufactured off the development site and then transported to it. Government might look to encourage more innovative forms of development with the hope of diversifying the developer market.

On devolution, clearly the new prime minister wants a different sort of relationship between central and local government. I think we’ve been frustrated by what Alexander Pope would call the ‘majesty in simplicity’. The prime minister and secretary of state said it remains an important plank of government policy and haven’t offered anything in contradiction, but the sector has remained sceptical.

The rapid withdrawal of the North East devolution deal, seen by some as a negative, was simply an honest response to a complicated situation. There was no salvageable arrangement in the circumstances and it is better to provide clarity than linger on. The secretary of state was right to act fast.

The key for councils is understanding where devolution needs to be different from previous iterations.

Clarity is an issue raised repeatedly with me. Government sources have been frustrated with the ‘copy and paste’ nature of some devo submissions.

Government still wants to get deals done, but only where it’s actually going to achieve something. If you can’t articulate what you want and why you want it, then you won’t be getting it. The implicit criticism of devo deals is that process has become the purpose. Any announcement made on devolution will be the aim of reversing that.

Mayors have been the central point of tension with regards to devolution. Clearly there’s less enthusiasm from the new administration, but I don’t sense any outright hostility. What we might see is mayors used as an elevated tool for bargaining, whereby the non-negotiable requirement for a mayor to get a devo deal will be relaxed, but for those areas wanting something more radical – dare I whisper it, greater fiscal devolution – then a mayor becomes necessary.

Finally, a reflection on Mr Javid. The communities part of his brief is often overlooked, but given the substantive questions of identity and solidarity posed by the Brexit vote, the symbolic importance of a Muslim secretary of state working to bring diverse British communities together isn’t lost on me.

‘If we’re going to live with each other, work with each other and tolerate each other, we have to understand each other,’ said Javid at a recent inter-faith conference.

His role in the broader question of how to put the country back together shouldn’t be overlooked, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he shared his views on how the Government might go about doing it either.

Liam Booth-Smith is chief executive of Localis

For an interesting perspective on Labour’s internal politics, look no further than the recent elections to the National Executive Committee, writes Paul Wheeler.

Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn swept the board for the constituency section. However, for councillors, the established candidates of Alice Perry and Nick Forbes leader of Newcastle comfortably held off challenges by a factor of 10 to one.

For those with long memories, the Labour Party in the 1980s was characterised by huge turmoil in local politics with results such as huge rate rises (upwards of 30% in boroughs such as Ealing and Waltham Forest) and the heroic but futile resistance to rate capping.

Needless to say, such policies were not popular with the electorate and led to loss of control of long standing councils such as Lambeth and Liverpool. Labour local government was seen as a huge embarrassment to the national and parliamentary party.

Fast forward 30 years and the contrast could not be greater. Labour local government has grown in stature and profile since 2010. Faced with difficult financial decisions they have got on with making the best deals for their localities. They have stuck together and made ground breaking devolution deals, which have the potential to transform the economies of many city regions.

Faced with the implosion of discipline within the parliamentary Labour Party and leadership team, Labour local government is the ‘responsible adult’ within the party.

Given the collapse of support for Labour nationally (eg, less than 10% of over-60-year-olds are willing to vote for the Labour Party at a General Election), support for Labour locally has held up remarkably well over the last 12 months.

The local elections in May 2015 saw the status quo maintained and Labour saw excellent gains in the London and Bristol mayoralty.

However, in most instances, Labour support in these contests and council by-elections have mainly seen a consolidation of support in existing Labour areas with very little evidence of gains in marginal/Conservative held wards.

More disturbingly, a number of recent by-elections (Stockton, Sheffield and NE Derbyshire) have seen major losses by Labour. If this trend continues after the party conference, it may indicate that the firewall between national polling and local results may have breached.

So far local Labour groups have been distanced by the squabbles and name calling associated with the ongoing leadership contests.

Local politics by its nature is pragmatic and local councillors are rarely subject to de-selection threats.

However, there are signs that some Labour councils could be flashpoints for internecine warfare between radical groups associated with the self styled Momentum and existing Labour councillors.

Much will depend on what happens to senior party staff after the leadership contest.

There is much speculation that Ian McNicol, the experienced general secretary, could be removed. If that happens – and is followed by a wider removal of party staff at regional level – alarm bells will be ringing in many Labour Groups.

A particular flashpoint could come with the selections of Labour candidates for the 2018 London borough elections, scheduled to begin in early 2017. London councils such as Lambeth and Waltham Forest have already seen lively internal party debates and are a convenient destination for national media.

A range of major elections in 2017 will provide further evidence on the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s brand of politics among the wider population.

Shire England is the key to winning any future General Election. In terms of representation in shire counties, Labour has not really recovered from its disastrous performance in 2009 when it lost every county council.

If Labour is cutting through to ‘Middle England’ it would expect to improve on its current tally of one council (Derbyshire) and two where it is the largest party (Lancashire and Nottinghamshire).

Scotland and Wales provide different challenges. Despite its dismal performance in national and Scottish Parliament elections, Scottish Labour is well represented in local councils with over half of the councils having a Labour leader (an intriguing outcome of PR in local elections).

Labour in Wales faces challenges in holding on in Swansea and Cardiff from a range of opponents including Liberal Democrats and UKIP as well as the Conservatives.

The city region mayoral elections should be a given as they are in Labour’s urban heartlands. But they are likely to be on a transferable voting system and could produce a close contest in the West Midlands.

Local Labour leaders have so far kept their distance from the national turmoil but that could change if threats of de-selections or illegal budgets spill over to local politics.

Labour councillors currently contribute over £2m to the national party and many have good working relations with trade unions. Momentum and other groups may find that disruption at a local level may be a step too far… 

Paul Wheeler is director of the Political Skills Forum and commentator on local politics

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