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'Radical' shift in local government politics could put devo bids at risk

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The Labour leadership contest has been the most remarkable political happening of the summer, and this includes the unexpected general election outcome.

From the moment Ed Miliband resigned his leadership, the party has degenerated into warring groups which can be broadly categorised as: (i) ‘New Labour’ or Blairites; (ii) the ‘revived New Left’ and (iii) everyone stuck in the war zone between the other two.

It now appears former prime minister Tony Blair only managed to paper over the cracks between Labour’s traditional ‘principle over winning’ left-wing and its more pragmatic centre-right.

Jeremy Corbyn, supported by figures such as former London mayor Ken Livingstone, has emerged as the darling of the ‘reject austerity’ faction which is now setting the pace in the contest. 

All of this is the more remarkable given that the Conservatives have deliberately adopted a number of Miliband policies, notably the ‘national living wage’ and a slower path to deficit reduction.

Arguably the Tories have finally shaken off the ideological mantle of Mrs Thatcher and returned to a more Stanley Baldwin-style opportunism.

The space for Labour to operate in is being reduced by chancellor George Osborne and prime minister David Cameron.

The ‘New Left’ in its 1970s and 1980s form prospered within parts of local government.

A number of urban authorities, notably in London, Merseyside and South Yorkshire were run by radical Labour administrations.

A number of these councils got into serious trouble, with poor management, electoral failure and, in some cases, surcharge.

It took years to restore good government in some areas.

Ironically, today’s pragmatic Labour city councillors were often forged by the experience of coping with the fall-out from the 1980s. 

Of course, a Corbyn-led Labour Party might be more disciplined than the 1980s one.

Whatever occurred at Westminster, it seems likely that Labour in town halls would remain moderate if the national leadership swung left.

Council leaders in cities have a good rapport with the chancellor.

However, any suggestion that there could be a radical change in local government politics might impede moves towards greater devolution of power within England.

Local government leaders will need to continue to convince the centre that city and county deals offer real benefits whoever becomes the new Labour leader next month. 

Tony Travers, director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

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Readers' comments (1)

  • No less ideological than the Thatcher government - they are just smarter at presenting their policies. Forcing councils to sell empty dwellings amid a housing crisis is "pragmatic" and not ideological. What about the 'cognitive dissonance' of creating Northern Powerhouses but not allowing to change the 'fuses' of setting council house rent levels?

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