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Oct 11

Locality goes to the Party Conferences


by Tony Armstrong, CEO Locality and Ed Wallis, Head of Policy

With politics in flux and unpredictable events apparently lurking around every corner, party conference season feels like something of throwback to a simpler time.

conservative party

These gatherings of the clans in seaside resorts or, increasingly, big city centres provide set piece opportunities for parties to announce new visions and debate new policies, and for members, apparatchiks and lobbyists to indulge in gossip while consuming large quantities of alcohol.

We joined the fray at Labour and Conservative conferences this year to find out what each of the two main parties were thinking as the dust settles on an unexpected election that brought an unexpected result. We talked to politicians, advisers, think tankers and policy wonks about our main policy priorities – like our community assets campaign, our Localism Commission and the work we have been doing as part of the InnoSI research project, bringing examples of innovative, localised policy approaches from across Europe to the attention of UK policy makers.

At Labour conference in Liverpool last year, Jeremy Corbyn has won the battle, with a second leadership contest victory in the space of 12 months. In Brighton, it was clear that after outperforming expectations in the general election, he has now won the war and his grip over the Labour party is secure. The conference floor was packed with delegates, and chants of “oh Jeremy Corbyn” accompanied almost his every utterance.

However, more energy seems to be being expended on celebrating ‘victory’ at the election than in thinking about what to do with power if and when it is won. Labour’s manifesto was a successful political document, galvanizing lots of people behind its vision of a country for the ‘many not the few’. But it’s less clear that it is fit for purpose as a governing one. Indeed the manifesto had something of a ‘back to the future’ feel, with a great deal of faith placed in the agency of a well-funded central state to solve stubborn social problems.

This feels at odds with the current direction of policy travel, which, as our policy briefing paper for the InnoSI project puts it, is built on

“a growing understanding among policymakers that the solutions to many of our most stubborn social challenges lie outside of Whitehall’s reach. By giving local areas control of a wider range of levers, services can be shaped around the distinct needs of every person and the full scope of local assets can be harnessed to achieve social change.”

But even at the fringe events with a more localist flavor which we attended, the idea that local people should be partners in change, rather than subject to it, was not in evidence. A discussion about community empowerment focused on how politicians could get better at doing their consultations, ensuring people felt ‘listened to’, rather than giving away real power. And an event that looked at the role of local authorities in the local economy was only interested in ‘insourcing’ services back under the control of the local authority, rather than seeing an opportunity to forge a new spirit of partnership with local community organisations. Our Keep it Local work has shown that close partnership working between the state and the community is the only the way to drive down long-term demand for services and keep money circulating round the local economy.

Most promising was a Fabian Society and Power to Change event on the future of community ownership of assets, where Jim McMahon MP – the shadow local government minister – spoke alongside senior Labour local government leaders to set out a compelling case for handing real control over to the community. As Power to Change note, McMahon suggested using a ‘chunk’ of the Dormant Assets fund to be used to support community assets, which is very much in line with our proposals in our ‘Places and Spaces’ report. Indeed we are going to be working with Power to Change on new programme of work focused on making the case for community ownership with local authorities, so it was encouraging to hear some great advocates.

Overall Labour seems in positive spirits and has a clear sense of direction. But the finer details of where that takes them in practice is not just something that needs more work, but something which they don’t appear to be thinking too hard about at present.

Labour’s buoyant mood was in stark contrast to the Tories in Manchester the following week. Indeed surely no other party conference season has seen the party that lost and the party that won acting as though the reverse had happened.

Clearly Theresa May’s speech ordeal ultimately overshadowed all that went before it. But before that it was the Foreign Secretary who was dominating the conference conversation, with his restatement of his ‘vision’ for Brexit, jogs with the editor of the Sun, and questions about whether he was unsackable being thrown at all senior Conservative politicians. We watched Ruth Davidson skillfully deflect such inquiries, while making clear that any MSP who did similar would be out on their ear. Davidson was one of two ‘darlings of the fringe’, the other being Jacob Rees-Mogg; two very different politicians, which tells you something about the dilemmas of the current Conservative party and why their future direction feels unclear.

Similar to Labour though, the balance of the party debate feels top heavy, with all the focus on the leadership and not enough on the policy underwiring. While talk of Europe was officially verboten in Brighton, it was much more present in Manchester, though there was more interest in what the sunlit uplands will look like rather than the substance of plausible deal that will take us there.

There were some interesting debates about public services, with the think tank Reform and Manchester Metropolitan University organizing an event with Liz Truss, the chief secretary to the Treasury, which talked about the potential of local public service commissioning and how social action can drive innovation. And SE:UK heard very supportive words from George Freeman MP – chair of the Prime Minister’s Policy Board – who said social enterprise should be at the heart of 21st century conservatism:

“We need to be the party of shared values and our economics can reflect the values that the vast majority of people in this country share. It seems to me that the social enterprise agenda captures so much of that.”

So with Conference season over and the politicians returned to Westminster, it is clear that politics remains in flux. Brexit will of course dominate the agenda and the parliamentary time, but we are clear that it must be a moment where we truly put communities in control. That’s the theme of our upcoming Convention, and that’s the case we’ll be continuing to make to both parties as they develop their thinking over the coming months and years.

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