England & Wales Democracy, devolution and governance

What did the party conference season tell us about local government?


Image: LGiU

This article was first published by the Guardian Local Government Network.

It’s a distinct moment in the political calendar. As summer holidays become a distant memory and the weather takes an autumnal turn, thousands of activists break out their lanyards and head for the seaside – or Manchester and Birmingham – for the annual carnival that is the party conference season.

The character of these conferences depends on where we are in the electoral cycle. The beginnings and ends of this cycle are quite predictable: triumph for winners and soul-searching for losers, and pre-election rallying for everyone. But it is in the middle of a parliament that things get interesting.

As the conferences began, I predicted that the general election would already loom large over all three parties this year. The Liberal Democrats would be keen to differentiate themselves from their coalition partners, the Conservatives would seek to set out a policyroadmap and political energy for the second half of this parliament, and Labour would be looking to articulate what sort of government they might hope to form and to reinforce Ed Miliband’s leadership credentials. At the end of the season I think that all three parties have broadly achieved these aims.

We’ve had moments of political colour: Clegg’s tuneful apology, Miliband’s surprising speech, and the Dave and Boris show in Birmingham. We’ve had some important policy announcements, including the ongoing council tax freeze and even a slogans with our “one” versus “aspiration” nation.

For me, none of this marks the real story of the conferences. What really counts, I think, are the thousands of local political activists including the many councillors who turn up at each of the conferences to listen, argue, debate and help shape their party’s thinking and their own.

These days only the Liberal Democrats allow real debate from the conference floor, but that’s far from the only forum: at fringe events, receptions and at private meetings MPs, ministers and party officials are lobbied, cajoled and encouraged by party members. That’s one of the ways in which local councillors help make up a direct line of political representation, from your street to Downing Street.

These are the the people who keep politics alive where it matters: incommunities across the country. They’re also the people who give the most accurate reflection of the mood of the parties, and what that might mean locally.

What struck me this year was how similar the major issues were for locally elected members across all three parties: anxiety about the impact of a tough new spending settlement for local government; the divide between those councils that fear this will drastically inhibit their ability to provide services, and those who consider it a driver of reform; welfare reform and an uncertainty about how it would impact local communities.

Above all, there was a sense that we were entering a period in which the government’s commitment to localism will be tested. Eric Pickles’s confirmation of a third consecutive freeze on council tax was considered as a failure of that test by councillors across the baord.

This question will be the real legacy of the party conference season for local government: whether political parties that are building up to retain or regain power are truly comfortable with simultaneously letting go of some of that power. On that, the jury is still out.