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Tony Travers

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Labour’s demise is a rare opportunity for councils, says LGC's columnist.

November used to be the month most directly associated with plotting Guy Fawkes and all that. But this year, August has become a plotters’ paradise, as Labour ministers and MPs manoeuvre to remove Gordon Brown. Stuck in Suffolk, the PM has attempted to look as if he is enjoying his holiday. In private, he must be spending hours on the phone trying to talk people out of rebellion.

Last week, foreign secretary David Miliband published a carefully crafted article to emphasise his position as the leading contender to succeed Brown. This week, John McDonnell has made it clear he will stand in any such race, to provide a left-wing candidate. The prime minister’s allies promise another relaunch in the autumn, though Blair loyalists are, it would appear, committed to publishing a series of pre-emptive initiatives within the next month. What a mess.

The Conservatives can watch from the sidelines as the government implodes. Having said that, Mr Brown is probably safer than he looks, given the incapacity of the Parliamentary Labour Party to dump its leaders. While the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats excel at regicide, Labour have generally been more humane.

Labour’s position in local government has turned out to be a leading indicator of Mr Brown’s current predicament. The party has lost more than half of its council seats since 1996, down from 10,929 to 5,279, and has virtually disappeared in many parts of southern England. Its equivalent vote share in this year’s local elections was 24%. On recent showings, Labour will be lucky to get 30% of the vote at the next general election.

There are opportunities for local government in all this. ‘Change’ is seen as the only way to improved electoral prospects. In the search for new ideas, ‘localism’ has a serious chance of moving forward as Mr Brown looks for new policies. Given his image as a grim Stalinist, what better way for the PM to signal a big change than a serious move towards decentralisation? Local authorities need to be sure that they, rather than unelected bodies, gain the initiative. But there is a real opportunity here.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could help this process by stressing their own pro-local credentials. Labour has recently been all too willing to adopt Tory policies, so David Cameron could prod the government by strengthening his commitment to shift power downwards. The Opposition should associate the utterly centralised nature of the Labour government with its unpopularity.

Rarely has a government looked weaker than the present one. The Local Government Association and individual councils should lobby hard for what they want. The next two years offer a rare opportunity to win major concessions from Mr Brown and his colleagues. One way of signalling his government has changed for the better would be to undertake a radical shift of power away from Whitehall.

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