Thursday, February 08, 2007

Are the Tories for real about localism?

The gap in postings has been at least in part because I have been away at the Local Government Association urban conference in Newcastle.

I heard Alan Duncan, the Conservatives’ Shadow Secretary for Trade, Industry and Energy argue for more autonomy and powers for local government. This seems a bit rich given that during their last 18 years in power the Tories went to almost any lengths to avoid giving extra powers to councils and to take away as many as they could. I mischievously asked whether this conversion was genuine or just because he was speaking to a local government conference. The reply was pretty noncommittal.

It seems all opposition parties sing the praises of local choice and autonomy until they get into power, when the dead hand of the Treasury takes over. And yet the optimist in me keeps hoping that a consensus is emerging that excessive central control of public services just has not worked.

So right now the Liberal Democrats, as a party committed to decentralisation, should be leading the debate and building on the report of the Huhne Commission of a few years ago. Yet somehow I’m still not hearing it and the lacklustre policy paper on local government submitted to the last conference (and rightly rejected) gave a sense that we are resting on our laurels.

Part of the problem is that we are a party dominated by campaigners and matters like the balance of responsibilities between central and local government hardly make for exciting newsletter copy. Yet campaigning is surely about more than just winning votes in a given election, but about changing the intellectual climate in our favour.

2 comments:

Tristan said...

That last part is very true.
Campaigners are important, but without an intellectual backdrop they risk turning the party into a campaign group rather than a political party promoting a liberal vision.

Power games can soon dominate, and party ambition becomes simply to get power, not to move the country in a liberal direction.

Tom Papworth said...

"It seems all opposition parties sing the praises of local choice and autonomy until they get into power, when the dead hand of the Treasury takes over."

I think this is a fairly recent phenomenon. Local government thrived until the 1980s. Then a combination of the hijacking of a few key metropolitan town halls by Socialist Workers and Mrs. Thatcher's erroneous belief in the Treasury's thriftiness led to a dismantling of local autonomy.

Successive prime ministers (including the imminent one) have followed the same path, with predictably disasterous results.