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TONY TRAVERS - DAME SHIRLEY IS A REMINDER OF THE MISTAKES OF THE PAST

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The return of Dame Shirley Porter to the full glare of media attention was bound to generate controversy. Like the ...
The return of Dame Shirley Porter to the full glare of media attention was bound to generate controversy. Like the chords of some forgotten 1980s pop tune, her returned presence evokes nostalgia and disquiet in equal measure. She is a physical representation of the aggressive politics of an earlier age.

In the late summer of 2006, it is hard to believe the 1980s really happened. Brutal economic restructuring, the Falklands, power-dressing, mass unemployment, Dallas, Mrs T, Big Bang, and conspicuous consumption were among the many elements that, between them, are now seen as characterising this extraordinary decade. Looking back, it is all so near and yet so far away.

For local government, the 1980s were a disaster. A succession of policies were pushed through that were designed to reduce, control and diminish democracy at the local level. Worse still, the activities of a number of councillors provided Mrs Thatcher's radical government with an excuse to 'curb extremism' and to 'roll back the frontiers of the state'.

Dame Shirley was seen by many as a local government version of Margaret Thatcher. Both were the daughters of grocers (albeit rather different ones) and both approached politics in a straightforward, if belligerent, way. There was no doubt what their politics were. In parallel on the left, a number of councils had set themselves up to oppose the Tory government. The ideological gap between right and left was a chasm.

Politics was certainly interesting. Whether it was the struggle over rate capping or Ken Livingstone's GLC martyrdom, local government was rarely out of the media. By the end of the decade, the introduction of the doomed poll tax made the front pages of newspapers throughout the world. Stupid it may have been, but boring it wasn't.

The damage caused to local government during the 1980s was out of all proportion to any problems with local democracy. If ever there was a case of breaking a butterfly on a wheel, this was it. The legacy of these years remains with us to this day. Dame Shirley remains a hate figure on the left, and always will be. The activities of Lambeth and Liverpool still cast a long shadow over senior Labour politicians, who cannot quite bring themselves to trust town halls. The words 'creative accounting', so often used in the 1980s to describe local government financial wheezes, are still in use although they are now more frequently applied to large private companies such as Enron.

The catastrophic central/local relationship of the Thatcher years must never be revisited. But this is not an argument for the removal of strong ideas from politics. It would be good for democracy if the political parties started to produce effective, competitive, local government policies. Difference and argument are an important part of the political process. Local democracy needs more of them.

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