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Imminent changes in the Local Government Association's Conservative group open up some intriguing possibilities for...
Imminent changes in the Local Government Association's Conservative group open up some intriguing possibilities for the future of the association.

Lord Hanningfield's imminent departure as head of the Conservative group is a piece of transformismo. He will retain his place as LGA vice-chairman and his seat on the party's board. If the Conservatives take control of the LGA from Labour in the next two or three years, he could still be first in line for Sir Jeremy Beecham's job as chair.

Lord Hanningfield has proven an effective group leader, playing a key role in ensuring Tory support for the creation of the LGA and helping bring his party back from its local government electoral nadir.

But he still flinches at taking on his own party when its policies run counter to the interests of local government.

This affliction has, at times, plagued the association's Labour group, but LGA chairman Sir Jeremy Beecham has become increasingly confident in exposing weaknesses in the government's arguments, an attitude which the Tory group leadership could learn from in its dealing with the Conservative front bench.

The culture of the Conservative Party seems to stifle dissent. Councillors have made it clear to Central Office they do not trust their parliamentary party to deliver for local government, yet in public their devotion is unswerving. It is an ironic position for a party keen to denigrate Labour as control freaks.

Lord Hanningfield's successor - likely to be Wiltshire CC's Peter Chalke - will have a unique opportunity. While Lord Hanningfield plays an important role in the LGA leadership's often consensus-style politics, the new group leader will be able to act as a powerful voice for the rank and file.

Tory members could use their high-profile new leader to make waves, while pulling behind their vice-chairman on issues where the LGA needs to present a united front.

Other parties could adopt similar measures. The LGA Labour group has been trying to carve out an identity as a group distinct from its role as the leadership of the LGA. This might be easier to achieve if Sir Jeremy were to relinquish his role as group leader, which would allow other group members to shine.

The LGA's Liberal Democrats tend to punch below their weight, particularly when compared with their highly effective local government spokespeople in Parliament. A leader who does not have to make deals with Labour in LGA executive meetings could be a strident national presence and help land more blows on the centralising policies of its rivals.

While the Tory group's plan for a two-headed leadership could be a recipe for division it might increase the group's effectiveness both within the LGA and within the party as a whole.

Members lower down the party hierarchy will gain a stronger voice and presence through their group leader, and the group will be free to carve out a more independent position on policy. Local politicians could begin to lead the debate on local government, instead of feeling they have to follow the lead of their Westminster counterparts.

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