While they go high, do we need to go low? Amidst the preoccupation among national politicians for big ideas I sense a local revival of “pavement politics”.
Naturally the Lib Dems will be in the Zeitgeist. In the local elections in London next year Richmond will be a top target for them. They are complaining that the pavements in the Conservative-run borough are not clean enough. From my visits there I think the criticism is distinctly less valid than elsewhere – and some of us have learnt over the years to develop a certain doubt regarding the veracity of Lib Dem campaigning messages.
Yet for the Lib Dems, the logic of taking up mundane local concerns is obvious. If the anti-Brexit message failed to get them anywhere in the General Election then pushing such a futile theme in local elections in future years would be absurd. The grey beards in that Party will naturally demand a return to the hyper-local “community politics” – with its cynical application by the Lib Dems of dishonest boasting and incompatible promises to those in one street, with others just a few streets away.
The Lib Dems had become a bit grand during the Coalition years. In his illuminating Coalition Diaries, David Laws briefly switches from his accounts of the high level power struggles involving Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin, and Nick Clegg, to say:
“At 9.30 a.m. I had a telephone call with Gerald Vernon-Jackson, our council leader in Portsmouth and head of the Lib Dem local government group. At the end of our conversation he insisted on giving me a couple of ‘good ideas’ about our next general election manifesto. One of them was a ‘dog poo strategy’. Gerald explained that we’re now going to microchip all dogs, and that a big issue in Portsmouth is people who allow their dogs to poo in public streets without clearing it up. Gerald said that what we ought to do is take DNA samples of the dog turd and then match it up to the dogs through the micro-chipping process. I said to him: ‘Very interesting idea. However, I don’t propose to put dog shit in our general election manifesto – there’s enough of it already.’ He was disappointed.”
Barking and Dagenham have been giving microchipping a try and I am trying to find out whether it has done any good. But I can well remember shortly before I was elected a councillor and asked residents their top three priorities and they told: “Getting rid of dog poo, getting rid of dog poo, getting rid of dog poo.”
So ignoring pavement politics is to disregard the concerns of voters. That does not mean that Conservative councillors should only be concerned about it. We certainly should be applying our bolder ambitions at local government level – such as wider home ownership and lower taxation. We should challenge social work orthodoxy that keeps far too many children in care rather than having the chance of a permanent loving home that adoption could provide.
There are many other ways that Conservative principles should be applied in a radical and effective way in town halls across the country. Nor should embracing pavement politics mean getting down into the gutter with the Lib Dems with their duplicity. But we can’t afford to ignore the basics. Where I think we can beat the sandal wearing element is by embracing new technology and the private sector to achieve our aims. This means that keeping the streets clean should be getting easier and cheaper to achieve as innovation advances.
The pavement polisher from the Addex Group, featured in the film below, which removes chewing gum stains was something I was impressed to see demonstrated the other day. The cost of the machines are pretty modest in the context of a Council’s budget – while having clean rather than stained pavements to walk along is one of those things that makes a difference to the morale of people going about their daily lives.
Then we have litter bins overflowing because they are not emptied enough. Dead trees that are not replaced. Park swings that are broken. The fly-tipping, the dog poo, the chewing gum stains… – those councillors who lose interest in such battles will get their comeuppance at the ballot box as the electorate wreaks vengeance.