FOR ME, conference is a perfect opportunity to see and hear from Labour colleagues from across local government. Speaking at fringe events was perfect for this, and I spoke on a range of subjects – from giving more power to local communities, to exploring how everyone can benefit from economic growth.
The reoccurring theme from these fringe events is that the Tory Government isn’t working for, but against local government – which is something we’ve known for a long time now.
These concerns are twofold. Firstly, local government finance is in tatters. The Government has raided council coffers year-after-year since 2010, and left them almost empty handed. Worse still, the Tories are yet to put in place a future funding arrangement for councils. They went someway to fixing this earlier this year, but since the Prime Minister called her doomed snap general election this has fallen by the way side. Now that the Government, with their reduced majority, has no domestic agenda at all – instead it is focused solely on Brexit and trying to repair the fractures in its own party – it looks unlikely that councils will get the help they need.
Devolution is off the Government’s agenda. We’ve seen positive steps towards devolution in recent years, for example the introduction on city mayors with some devolved powers. But it is clear that devolution hasn’t gone far enough: power still pools in cities in the hands of the few, not in local communities; and the purse-strings to make change happen are still controlled by Whitehall.
Labour confirmed our belief that every area should have decent, well-resourced public services and the move to a National Education Service and National Social Care Service is a determined move to ensure there is a clear framework of entitlement, accountability and resourcing.
It is so important that a future Labour government addresses these challenges. But in doing so it must let local councils decide what’s best for them – not what Whitehall thinks is best for our individual and unique local communities.
Our councils have faced a concerted attack through legislative changes and cuts in core funding. They have had central education funding hollowed out and social funding striped to the point that at 257,000 employees it is at its lowest level since with the workforce decreasing every quarter for the past five years.
The resilience of our councils should be recognised and as we move to a national framework they are front and centre of democratic accountability and service delivery with the funding needed to provide support to those who need it most.
And how we accommodate evolving sub regional governance provides challenges, but opportunities too. The tension was apparent with the omission of our elected mayors across the country. The perceived lack of a desire for our Labour leaders across the country who are in government locally to share the real difference Labour is making on the ground.
I have long argued that Labour needs a clearer position on England and as we evolve into differential devolution across the nation there will need to be a proper debate on how best to give a platform to help shape our national policy agenda.
Perhaps there is too the need for a fuller debate on how the ruling National Executive Committee is formed. With the decision to extend the number of representatives around the table it is time to consider representation from our English regions.
The mood of conference was positive. There is an acceptance that austerity has failed to deliver the recovery promised following the financial crash, and the price is being paid by those who can least afford it.
Our country is demanding change and Labour has the opportunity to offer a compelling vision of an alternative Britain.
I’d like to thank the organisations who hosted fringe events at Conference, and to everyone who took the time to attend and speak to me about the important issues of the day. Your experiences and insights are, as ever, highly valued.
A special thanks to the Fabians, Institute for Government, Cooperative Party, Labour Future, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Devo Connect, LGIU and Young Labour for hosting me at their fringe events.