Jonathan Carr-West is the Chief Executive of the Local Government Information Unit.
You know summer is really over when you start packing your bags for party conference season. Aside from warm white wine and curling sandwiches, what can we expect at each conference this year and what is the outlook for local government the Autumn after a tumultuous summer?
The Liberal Democrats may be few in number but high in spirit. In many ways, their conference will be the cheeriest of the three: they have a stable, if not universally loved leadership; they are the only party with an unequivocally anti-Brexit stance to take to the 48 per cent – and Labour are vacating the centre ground.
But they start from a low base. They have neither the boots on the ground nor the space on the airwaves to get their message across at scale. They risk being outflanked by Theresa May’s emphasis on social justice and life chances. Liberal Democrat councils are focused on the need to deliver: to get on with running places as well as they can and rebuilding the party’s reputation for competence and integrity one resident at a time.
For Labour it is, just as it was last year, all about the leadership contest. And the best betting is that the result will be just the same as last year too. Having said that, some in the Owen Smith camp claim that many of Labour’s £25 sign ups are “Save Labour” Smith supporters. The GMB are hitting the phone banks hard to work for a Smith victory and there are rumours that UNITE officials are sitting on their hands in defiance of Len McCluskey’s backing for Corbyn.
Nonetheless, you’d be brave to bet against the man from Islington North and the conference looks likely to be a tense affair with Corbynites exultant and the parliamentary party licking its wounds. What next? Even a small reduction in Corbyn’s mandate will be interpreted by some as a setback for the hard left project but the reality is that he will have tightened his grip on the Labour Party.
Some Labour MPs will drift back in line; others will drift away. Talk of a split in the party feels increasingly desultory and New, New Labour or Old New Labour or whatever they call themselves would struggle to get control of the Short Money and they wouldn’t own the door to door electoral data that can win elections on the ground. It feels like a dead end.
For Labour, local government increases the tension between pragmatic, non-ideological, local leaders and the party they are nominally part of.
Of course all of this leaves the field clear for Prime Minister May. She will need a clear field if she is to pull off one of the trickiest balancing acts in British political history, negotiating a version of Brexit that satisfies voters and protects the economy.
For local government the challenge is more about what isn’t there than what it is. So much of the agenda for the last six years has been dominated by George Osborne, that it now feels as though we are operating in a vacuum. Major issues such as devolution and finance reform now feel up in the air. Does the government still welcome devolution bids? Do they still require an elected mayor?
Are we still on track to phase out the Rate Support Grant and retain all business rates by 2020?
Sajid Javid has been silent on all these issues. Everyone recognises that Brexit is going to occupy most of the Government’s energies and most of the civil service’s capacity. Local government does not need its hand held, but it does need the Secretary of State to give a clear steer about the direction of policy travel. Conference would be the ideal time for him to do so.