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Is Labour in Westminster getting its act together at last?

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LGC’s essential daily commentary 

Almost six months on from Labour’s general election ‘success’ (which nevertheless saw it fall 60 seats short of a majority), questions have been mounting about why the party has not opened up a decisive lead in the polls.

This weekend though brought good news for the party’s leadership with a poll by Survation, the only firm that correctly predicted the election result, putting Labour eight points ahead of the Conservatives.

Whether this is down to the efforts of Jeremy Corbyn and the shadow cabinet, or Theresa May and the government, is debatable; many critics inside and out of Labour believe the party’s lead should be much greater.

The combination of the division over the approach to Brexit and the impact of seven years of austerity being felt ever more acutely in communities around the country should, the argument goes, present Labour with plenty of opportunities to land more damaging blows on a weak and divided government than they have done to date.

Today Labour’s local government team attempted to seize the initiative with the launch of the first in a series of ‘local government health checks’ designed to highlight a particular issue. This focused on the plight of children’s services which, as LGC has reported regularly in recent months, are battling the wicked combination of falling funding and rising demand.

Labour’s current local government team has some able bodies – shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne proved himself to be an effective media performer as co-chair of Labour’s general election campaign while shadow local government minister Jim McMahon was highly regarded across party lines as leader of Oldham MBC. However, they appear to have been hampered to date by the party leadership’s lack of interest in local government and difficulty agreeing positions.

The decision to begin the ‘health checks’ with children’s services reflects the growing concern in the sector about the future of such services, especially amongst councils in more deprived traditionally Labour voting areas. The next ‘health check’ is expected to focus on the future funding of local government, an issue that will be high up the agenda this month with the publication of the provisional local government finance settlement, widely expected next week.

Politically, the focus on vulnerable children, the most emotive of issues, is a smart move and a powerful way of drawing attention to the importance of local government both inside and outside of the party.

Indeed, shadow chancellor John McDonnell last week quizzed the chancellor on the lack of support for children’s services in the Budget, asking Philip Hammond why he had prioritised making a £5bn cut to the bank levy over additional resources for children’s services.

Shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne took up the same line of questioning with the communities secretary at today’s communities and local government question time, with a soundbite perfectly pitched for the TV news bulletins.

“Why won’t [Sajid Javid] stand up for our children’s services and tell his chancellor that now isn’t the time to cut £4.75bn from the bank levy. It’s time to put our children first!”

In response Mr Javid acknowledged the pressure children’s services are under and said Mr Gwynne should “look to see” how the issue is dealt with in the finance settlement.

“We are listening closely to what local authorities have to say and working with the education secretary to make sure that adequate resources are provided,” Mr Javid said.

When pressed further by Mr Gwynne, Mr Javid fell back on the Conservatives’ tried and tested rebuttal of Labour – the MP for Denton and Reddish had “no idea” how the extra support he was demanding would be funded, the communities secretary said.

That may well be the case, although the reference to the bank levy does suggest at least one option, but at this stage in the parliament it almost doesn’t matter. Until a general election is called the primary role of the Opposition is to point out the problems, not identify the solutions.

The government’s standard response to mounting service pressures seems to be to announce a green paper – as on social care, social housing and now children’s mental health – and/or a new pot of money that may sound impressive to the general public but is almost insulting when considered in the context of the billions that have been cut from services in recent years. In the past 48 hours alone we have seen a £300m fund for children’s mental health in a schools and a £25m planning delivery fund, for example.

The sector has been let down by the lack of an effective Opposition in recent years. For the benefit of council administrations of all political persuasions, let’s hope that’s about to change.

Sarah Calkin, deputy editory



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