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Local government is well placed to benefit from a close general election outcome

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The autobiographies and diaries of senior politicians during the government of Jim Callaghan in the late 1970s paint a vivid picture of parliamentary life under a minority administration.

They are replete with tales of knife-edge votes and seriously ill MPs being delivered to the House of Commons by ambulance.

But there are other memories of the same period. When I joined the then Association of Metropolitan Authorities in 1983 my colleagues talked about the period between 1976-78 as the high point of local government’s influence in Parliament. Every vote was tight, most votes mattered and it only required a handful of MPs to be persuaded to take a particular line to change the outcome.

Recent years – even the period of coalition government just coming to an end – have seen healthy parliamentary majorities. One consequence of this has been a shift in lobbying activity from a targeted focus on Parliament to broader public affairs activities. All the signs are that the outcome of the general election will mark a return to the days of close parliamentary margins: votes in Westminster will matter again.

Local government should be well-placed to benefit from this. What other sector has direct access to more than 18,000 politically active people most of whom are members of a political party? The Confederation of British Industry or the House Builders Federation can only dream of that level of potential influence.

The question is: how can local government take advantage of its pole position in the post-election influencing stakes?

The single most important thing is for every council to ensure that it has the best possible links with its local MPs. Politicians listen to other politicians and are most responsive to issues of concern to their local voters.

This requires effort and organisation and cannot be left to informal links between an MP and the council leader. Every MP must be offered regular meetings with and briefings from councils’ political and managerial leadership. In too many places this ground work does not exist.

Once this is in place the Local Government Association has a key role to play in producing material that can inform that local dialogue, in providing on-the-day briefing and support in Westminster and in working closely with ministers, shadow ministers and their advisers.

I’d love to see another UK series of The House of Cards, but one in which a new central character pays as much attention to the views of her local councillors as to those of her fellow MPs.

Phil Swann, managing director, Shared Intelligence. He was previously director of strategy and communications at the LGA




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