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Don't rely on Miliband to shape your future, says Phil Swann...
Don't rely on Miliband to shape your future, says Phil Swann

The welcome for the new, young member of the cabinet with responsibility for local government was overwhelming.

Pundits pointed with enthusiasm to his links with No 10. Even the Local Government Association dropped its 'cautious' stance. At last there would be some imaginative political clout behind local government policy.

No, not the response to David Miliband's appointment as minister of communities and local government, although the same was said about him. Rather, this was how we all reacted when Stephen Byers was appointed to head the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions after the 2001 election.

This sobering meander down memory lane is not meant to suggest Mr Miliband's appointment is not significant. It clearly is. Rather, my point is that our reaction to it says something about the current state of local government.

A classic response of any group in a state of anxiety or pressure is to venerate a new leader and put its future in her or his hands. It's a way of avoiding responsibility. And generally it's doomed from the start.

The question we should be asking, is not 'what will the new minister do for local government?', but 'what can local government do for itself to capitalise on the post-election political world?'

Peter Riddell highlighted an important feature of that new world in The Times last week. Reflecting on the electoral arithmetic - Labour in office with the support of less than 22% of the electorate - he concluded: 'It is time for both main parties to think about the possibility of coalition politics and electoral reform.'

The nature of the relationship between a Labour government and local councils at a time when Labour's power base is shrinking is generally seen as being problematic.

Indeed, it was highlighted in 1996 as a potential obstacle to devolution by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle in their book The Blair Revolution.

Yet if the nature of politics and political debate is changing, then a different form of dialogue between central and local government could help to map out a new political journey for the country.

It would be messy and difficult. It would inject raw politics into what has always been an essentially managerialist central-local partnership. But it has the potential to put local government at the heart of the debate.

The challenge would be to find ways of translating a more vibrant political debate into better legislation and more effective delivery locally, and to use that link between practice and politics to improve the policy-making processes within the parties.

The election campaign was politically dull, but the result was not. By capitalising on that the new dynamics, local government could begin to shape the political debate. It would make Mr Miliband's life more difficult, but that's probably what he needs.

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