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UK political parties debate
Britain’s local democracy

By Andrew Stevens, UK Editor

6 October 2006: The party conference season is a fixture of the UK political calendar and even prolongs Parliament’s summer break, but there are few contrasts with the party conventions in the US. While in the US party conventions take place every four years, are open to state delegates and anoint candidates for the presidency, their UK equivalents are held annually, open to almost all and instead deliberate policy.

Political conferences in Britain occupy several functions, depending on the party’s own history and level of public support. Leaders tend to use the occasions to showcase their party to the public, announce new policies and motivate grassroots activists and supporters. The party memberships, for their part, tend to gravitate to such events to debate policy, meet other members and enjoy the ability to share proximity with prominent politicians. Or at least enjoy one week of political relevance before returning to another 51 weeks of obscurity.

Though with the demise of ideologically-charged politics in the UK, not to mention the 24/7 news media and crumbling of deference towards politicians, the role of such conferences is fading in importance, as showdowns on the conference floor tend to give way to stage-managed shows of party unity. It is often said that the real action is on the conference fringe, where politicians get to float new ideas and members quiz them, usually over a corporate-sponsored glass of wine or two. This also leads to there being almost as many lobbyists at each conference as party members.

The first conference of the season is the Liberal Democrats, this year held in the seaside resort of Brighton. As Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats are unlikely to form a majority government, though they do govern in coalition in Scotland and currently govern in five of the eight English core cities. Their apparent distance from political power, not to mention adherence to liberal pluralism, does however allow for a looser culture within the party, which can lead to routine defeats for the leadership in votes compared to the control-freakery of the other two parties. This was evident in the local government debate, the first for almost a decade, the product of several years of deliberation in backrooms among senior activists, was thrown out at the behest of the party’s chair at the Local Government Association Cllr Richard Kemp. The party’s shadow local government spokesperson Andrew Stunnell did concede that the policy document Your Community, Your Choice was light on ideas, but said that voting it down would lead him to having no formal position on the forthcoming local government white paper. This did not concern delegates, who rejected it massively.

Elsewhere in Brighton, several meetings debated city regions and elected mayors, with most members and politicians reiterating their opposition to both elected mayors and any new structures. However, rising star and putative leader Nick Clegg told delegates at one fringe that the party needed to drop its opposition and adopt the mayoral cause as failure to do so would be "at their peril".

A week later, Labour met in the northern city of Manchester, something of a departure for the party considering its tradition of seaside conferences. Both delegates and the media heard much about Manchester’s successful decade of regeneration and urban renaissance, triggered by the massive devastation of the city centre by an IRA bomb in 1996 but furthered by the hosting of the 2002 Commonwealth Games. However, while the city is clearly resurgent and profoundly more cultural these days, some of its suburbs remain deprived and in despair (the city is also known as ‘Gunchester’ to some residents). While Tony Blair used his valedictory speech as Labour leader to pay tribute to the city council for its efforts in turning the city around, the putative Prime Minister and current Chancellor Gordon Brown used his address to set out his stall as a localist, promising massive and historic devolution to local government from the centre.

The hollow laughter of some observers, mindful of Brown’s near-decade of unrepentant centralism, could be heard throughout the city region. City regions were the order of the day in Manchester also, though few on the fringe appeared to be able to define what they meant by them. Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly, who barely mentioned local government at all in her speech to the party faithful, promised yet more devolution in her forthcoming white paper, though she remained rather reticent on its contents, leaving the door open to speculation that any drive for elected mayors has been killed off by her mentor Gordon Brown. Former local government minister and now Environment Secretary David Miliband told one fringe event that he wanted to see “a Britain of 100 cities”, suggesting some cabinet disunity as he was known for his desire to pursue massive reorganisation and more elected mayors in his last government post.

At several councillors’ receptions, some local government ministers and party officials recalled their early careers as young female councillors and the numerous slights made against them by colleagues, priding themselves on the ‘culture shift’ achieved under Labour, though most councillors in the UK remain white, male and over 50. There were however some surprises at the conference. While delegates inflicted a rare defeat for the leadership over the question of resourcing social housing, Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander announced a significant shift in government policy to reverse the bus deregulation reforms of the 1980s, hinting that some major cities may be given London Mayor-style powers over bus services in their area.

The sedate retirement resort of Bournemouth proved an appropriate setting for the Conservative party conference held during the first week of October. New leader David Cameron was desperate to ditch his party’s now annual image of sleeping elderly delegates during rousing speeches about faith, family and the flag, and instead show his party as more modern, vibrant and tolerant. In the conference hall, as could be expected, local government was relegated to the early morning slot, leaving lead local government spokeswoman Caroline Spelman to reiterate her party’s commitment to abolishing Labour’s regional structures and the hated Standards Board. Elsewhere, junior local government spokesman Alistair Burt promised that the Cameron Conservative Party would examine the case for elected mayors in major cities, though one fringe meeting on city regions heard many cries from Conservative councillors for the exact opposite.

Transport spokesman Chris Grayling used his address to call on voters in urban Britain to return to the Conservatives, arguing that a Conservative government had built light rail systems in Northern England and the first new London Underground line in a generation, while Labour in government had merely cancelled new schemes and not laid a single piece of track to extend existing ones. Most remain cautious over how local democracy would fare in the hands of the Conservatives, especially after the Thatcher and Major eras, but Grayling’s words did underline how Labour has made little progress despite almost a decade of rhetoric and a few rainforests of reports whose recommendations are subsequently shelved.

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