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Time for Labour to pull together

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Labour conferences are apt to be febrile, says Sir Jeremy Beecham, Labour group leader on the Local Government Assocation.

Last year’s was dominated by speculation about an early election, fuelled by Gordon Brown’s honeymoon with the electorate and a lead in the polls. In the event, the ‘election that never was’ sparked a collapse in the standing both of Labour and the prime minister.

The difficulties were compounded by problems of the government’s own making, like the 10p tax fiasco, and others that were not, notably the financial tsunami spreading from the US.

The last thing Labour needs now is a week of navel-gazing and speculation about its leadership. We have to reassert our values and demonstrate their relevance to the insecurity and hardship which haunt too many families and communities due to the credit crunch.

That means policies to mitigate the effects of the financial crisis on jobs and living standards, and developing the programme for a new term of Labour government.

First we must remind people of Labour’s record of delivery in jobs, health, education, skills, housing, the environment, equalities, the arts, the reduction in crime and child and pensioner poverty, and much else. We don’t seek gratitude.

The object is to establish in the public mind a platform of achievement which reinforces our claim to continue the transformation of Britain.

Then, we must expose our opponents’ pretensions. The Tories, and their smooth leader, opposed most of what Labour has achieved, from the original windfall tax on utilities firms to fund the New Deal and the minimum wage onward. Yet the predicted closer scrutiny of Tory policy has not transpired.

The media may have failed here, but so has Labour. Principally for us, the media and the electorate, there is the question of how David Cameron and shadow chancellor George Osborne will get the tax cuts they now profess to want, or how this policy is consistent with earlier promises to match Labour’s spending plans?

Nowhere are the inconsistencies more palpable than around local government.

Just what are their policies, beyond a vague commitment to an ill-defined localism?

What would they do about local government finance, apart from opposing revaluation for council tax?

Do they support redistribution between affluent and disadvantaged areas, or not?

How compatible with democratically elected local government is their policy of imposing a system of directly elected mayors and police commissioners - neither of which seem to be supported by Tories in the Local Government Association?

What is their position on affordable housing and housing numbers? And just how much would a Tory government rely on the third sector, not just to complement local and central government services, but to replace them?

If shadow communities secretary Eric Pickles can seek to instruct Tory councillors what to do about waste charges or “non-co-operation” with the government while he’s on the opposition front bench, what would he be like in government?

We should remind people what Tory councils do, from failing selective schools in Kent CC to the cuts in affordable housing in Hammersmith & Fulham LBC. And we should turn the spotlight onto the Liberal Democrats, their partners in many councils in Birmingham, Leeds or Cumbria.

Just whom in a hung Parliament - a conceivable scenario - would Nick Clegg support?

Much, then, to discuss at Manchester and everything to play for. Labour local government will play its full part in the debate and in energising the party for the battle of ideas and values which will decide the next election.

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