Neil Kinnock's 1985 conference speech criticised some Labour councils for playing politics with people’s jobs and people’s lives. Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, recently made a similar charge. Why do members of the coalition team seem shocked Labour are doing this and how should we respond?
Neil Kinnock accused Liverpool council of acting on the basis of dogma. Hiring taxis to deliver redundancy notices to their own workers seemed bizarre but Liverpool council were merely playing brinkmanship with the central government. They overspent their budget, appealed for more funds and effectively used their cities most vulnerable as leverage. This was a tactic that had been successful in previous years. It did not do the Labour party in Liverpool any damage as they retained power serving from 1983 till 1992 but served as a warning to the rest of the country, which Kinnock was keen to overcome.
Modern Labour councils are unlikely to go to the lengths of their ‘loony’ predecessors by setting an illegal budget. I will not comment on the merits of individual Labour councils deficit reduction proposals in practice. I am more interested in why they may choose to cut core public services and how we, as Conservatives, should respond. There seems to be a political logic to Labour authorities cutting the services that are visible, which people care about, while protecting those of their political allies employed in less valuable and more dubious ‘services,’particularly those related to re-engineering society to ensure equality and diversity.
We need a strategy to combat those Labour councils who oppose the cuts and are doing everything they can to make them as unpopular as possible. Depending on whether you are in power locally or seeking power Conservatives should be able to pick and choose from the following proposals (some measures may require Government support/legislation so we should lobby for this):
- Introduce flexibility into how councils determine their employees pay, conditions and pension entitlements. We need to be able to draw a distinction between a Labour party which campaigns for
national pay bargaining and final salary pensions and Conservative authorities who use public money to protect the services which ordinary citizens rely on.
- Produce comparative data to show where Conservative councils are cutting public expenditure compared with their Labour equivalents. We should be able to say that the Conservatives are cutting publicity budgets rather than children’s centres with the data to back it up.
- Produce detailed alternative budgets (where in opposition) that clearly set out where we would cut – don’t simply rely on bland appeals to reduce waste or bureaucracy, be very precise. Many good Conservative opposition council teams already do this, Leeds and Tower Hamlets deserve particular praise. Matching a Labour cut with a Conservative cut of a similar size for each measure is a good tactic.
- Cut your councillor allowances: Make the reduction in your allowance proportionate to the level of cuts you introduce or go without your allowance to demonstrate that you are sharing the pain. Our biggest liability is the perception that we are in it for ourselves – increasing or maintaining your allowance while cutting services sets the wrong message. If Labour proposes increasing allowances then vote against. If you are defeated why not put the allowance increases received by your members into a common fund and ask the public what charity you should donate them to?
- Do not promise to restore what Labour councils have cut, condemn Labour cuts of essential services but never be drawn into pledges to restore the former structure. There may be much inefficiency in the previous delivery model. The one benefit of Labour's plan to cut these services is the fact that we will be in a position to develop our own solution to the problems we face unencumbered with the old structure.
- Don’t leave money in the tin: there is nothing wrong with reducing the council’s reserves in an election year. You could offer a one off rebate to all council taxpayers. This would help with a larger structural problem in British politics – Conservatives inflicting the pain necessary to tidy up the books then being voted out and the Labour party proceeding to mess things up again. Please don’t give any incoming Labour administration a golden legacy to squander.
- Do promise to return surplus council reserves to the people. Where Labour authorities are maintaining these large council cash reserves can we not promise to return them to the people? These large sums could prove a real blessing to Conservative opposition movements that otherwise recognise their local authorities lack the funds to promise a giveaway.
Labour is playing the blame game – we must make sure that this is a game they lose. Conservative councils need to cut Labour non jobs and the benefits of public sector workers rather than targeting core public services. Labour is taking a big gamble by cutting core public services in their areas. We need to be ready with a coherent alternative which emphasises the positive incentives to vote Conservative and how a responsible administration should implement local public spending cuts.
The views expressed above are my personal views and not those of my employer or any other organisation with which I am associated.