Liberal Democrats have been holding their own in recent council byelections in 2012 despite hovering around eight to 12 per cent in the polls. It suggests voters may be focussing more on ‘local issues’ than Westminster politics. If so, what is the enduring appeal of Lib Dems at the grassroots? More pertinently, is it possible to describe in a nutshell what municipal Liberalism actually is?
After all, Lib Dem councils appear to be quite different in character between one authority and the next. They also vary in performance every bit as much as town hall’s run by other parties. Some successful ones, like my own borough in Sutton, have ruled the roost with popular support for decades. Others have been turfed out of office.
In Sutton, national issues barely interrupted a recent ultra-local byelection in Worcester Park – a split ward – which the Lib Dems successfully defended. I would describe the Council’s reputation as being ‘local’ and listening, competent, thrifty and caring. And after 25 years running the Council there was a solid record to defend.
However surely all well-run Councils, whatever their political colour, should listen and aim to be competent and thrifty? Indeed the successful ones are. Which begs the question what makes a Lib Dem Council Liberal? ‘Pavement politics’, street surveys and Focus leaflets help. I am not convinced Labour Councils, in their desire to deliver fair services, place as much emphasis on a culture of listening and responding to residents throughout the authority.
The party offered 30 ideas for local government at the last election but few that wouldn’t be out of place in our rivals’ manifestos. In many ways it was the least recognisably Liberal part of their national manifesto. A bit greener that the Tories, maybe, more interested in devolving power and less tied to regulation than Labour certainly, but in the final analysis promising good old fashioned management of town halls – street lights and schools.
The 19th Century municipal Liberalism of Joseph Chamberlain was quite different. Buying gas and water companies amounted to old-style Socialist nationalisation at a city level. Necessary to improve infrastructure and basic living standards at the time but hardly a Liberal model for a modern age of commissioning and strategic planning.
Present-day Liberal values are more likely to be seen in isolated projects like Newcastle’s Science City, or Sutton’s Life Centre and Hackbridge green housing development. Valuable projects no doubt, but also totems to Liberal values that often find it hard to show themselves amid the everyday landscape of managing cuts and processes, and responding to legislation.
The days of gas and water Socialism are long gone but as some Labour Councils tip-toe along the path of devolving power to a local level there is a growing need for Lib Dems to define our municipal vision more clearly for all voters to understand.
Quite simply, Lib Dems should think long and hard about how to sell their vision of local liberalism in a way that Britain understands. Not merely local achievements and prudent management, but a simple list of, say, three things you get with every Lib Dem authority.
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