Christina Dykes, Political Director (Conservative) for the Leadership Centre for Local Government, on the need for a unifying Conservative language for local government.
On the day the Councillors Commission is due to report on its recommendation which rumour suggests will have far-reaching consequences on the way political parties select and support candidates for local government, let me offer a few thoughts of my own for Conservatives.
When I was asked in 2006 by the Leadership Centre for Local Government to set up a leadership course for the most talented of Conservative councillors, my aim was and still is, to counter the image of Conservatism in local government that had formed in my own mind.
It is a picture, note – not a vision. I can see a map of England laid out in front of me. All over the country there are silos representing councils: some are tall, dignified and modern; others are small, squat and sturdy. Too many are in decay with crumbling cornices, broken windows and sprouting weeds from hanging gutters. Around some there is great activity with swirling birds and swarming ant-like people running hither and thither. In most there is nothing. What is missing is any kind of interconnection between them. There are no connecting electricity pylons or telegraph poles: just a series of buildings plopped over the geography.
And herein lies the problem. After ten years of Labour administrations, there is no unifying Conservative language for local government. What activity there is, has been set by the Government which, at its most fundamental is about place and how local government and other public agencies interrelate to provide joined-up governance for that area. It is a positive agenda and properly interpreted should put the council in the driving seat to shape and lead across its town or county or city. However within this overall vision there are the inevitable values of Labour Governments, particularly uniformity, interference and obfuscation. At the same time, the Conservative Party – the largest party in local government by some way – is missing a great opportunity to interpret Labour’s national policy into a Conservative tradition and apply it to those councils and areas we control.
There are those who have put in sterling efforts to speak up for our Party in local government: the Conservative Local Government Association group, the Conservative Councillors’ Association and those MPs who know – at first hand – about local government. But they can only do so much. In general Conservative Councillors are paying too little attention to playing out Conservative values within today’s political agenda. Ask most Conservative local authorities what Conservatism means to them and they will articulate the agenda of the 1980s: low taxes, good service delivery, value for money, and as an add-on something about being green. There is nothing wrong with these values, they’re all good stuff, but today they’re just not good enough as there is much more on the agenda.
It has been difficult to articulate a distinctive agenda for the centre right at the beginning of the 21st Century. Moreover, in spite of the cries for greater localism, old habits clearly die hard. Recent Party announcements on referendums to decide council tax levels and the preparation for the new education policies suggest the opposite of entrusting local government colleagues with greater autonomy. What is more, how does the idea of elected executive mayors sit with elected police chiefs? As all three will have been democratically elected, it does beg the question: just whose mandate would prevail in a case of conflicting policies?
The role of Conservatism in local Government is crucial if the nation is going to absorb what the new Conservative Party stands for. There are around 5,315 Conservative councillors, compared to 197 Conservative MPs, and it is these councillors who are the people that day-by-day bring Conservatism to the lives of electors. Yet this largest part of the Conservative Party’s elected representatives are still fumbling for their place in Cameron’s Conservatism.
Thanks to Gordon Brown’s wobble, there is time. Two things need to happen. Firstly, Conservative councillors need to wake up to their responsibility to create a Conservative ‘story’ that extends further than just service delivery. Secondly, the national Conservative party should stop seeing local government as its poor relation – a place where rejected parliamentary candidates might find something worthwhile to do.
As those in local government know, there is a huge untapped resource of enthusiasm, dedication and energy. So let’s see more formal and established consultation between David Cameron and his counterparts – in particular those democratically-elected leaders of first-tier local government authorities. Let us see structured and regular consultation between shadow cabinet members, whose responsibilities have a great bearing on local government services, and the LGA Conservative group and the CCA. And let’s see the names of leading Conservative
councillors being properly acknowledged on the Conservative website along with the names of the Shadow Cabinet, MPs and candidates.
This is not a difficult agenda to deliver and it might bring about what is badly needed, a Conservative Party vision for governing which incorporates not only the national and the international but also the local.