I was surprised there were no ministers at the Local Government Awards organised by the Municipal Journal last night. It was one of those events at which, if memory serves me right, Labour always tried to ensure a ministerial presence.
But I didn’t have to be there for long to pick up the feeling from council leaders of all political colours that relations with central government, and Eric Pickles in particular, were not too great.
The spending cuts were big and bad enough, and there was a feeling Mr Pickles somewhat relishes the image of having settled early as one of the biggest losers in the public spending round.
But the weekly bin collection issue seems to have been something of a straw-breaks-camel-back situation for some. A Tory leader who came over basically for a bit of Tory-Labour political joshing between courses, ended up fulminating ‘how on earth can Pickles preach localism whilst telling councils how often to collect bins and what kind of salaries they should pay senior officers?’
There was a feeling that Mr Pickles, despite or perhaps because of his local government background, is keen to present himself politically as a scourge of councils rather than a supporter.
In my speech I pointed out that this was a theme which can be detected as something of a political strategy across the government.
– The PM and Chancellor never tire of telling us how bad the ‘economic mess we inherited’ is as a way of justifying all the cuts.
– Andrew Lansley, despite the NHS having its highest ever satisfaction ratings at the end of a long period of Labour government, has to talk that success down as a way of justifying the top down reorganisation they promised they would never have.
– Michael Gove has to communicate a sense of our State schools being failures rather than successes to justify his flagship free schools policy.
I missed out the military and the police. One of my fellow diners – a Labour leader this one – said David Cameron’s ‘you do the fighting, I’ll do the talking’ jibe was a fairly unsubtle put down of the military, also facing big cuts.
And on twitter this morning a policeman sent me a message saying they feel they are being deliberately attacked and undermined from central government to whom they usually look for support.
You cannot accuse the government of lacking the taste for a fight. They appear to be taking on a lot of different groups at the same time, and sticking to their mantra that the cuts and the reforms are inevitable and right. It is quite a risk as a political strategy, but then so is their entire economic strategy too.
My message was not universally well received, and my observation that I never saw Michael Gove emerging from a State school and saying ‘what a great school’ was greeted with a solitary cry of ‘Rubbish’.
Twitter later revealed this to be from Harry Phibbs, now a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham it seems, where one of the first free schools is being established. Something of a blast for the past for me, having been a journalist in the mid 80s covering the demise of the Federation of Conservative Students – ‘more Thatcherite than Thatcher’ – in which Mr Phibbs had a central role. Nice to know he has lost none of his fire or his adherence to crazy right wing policies.
I look forward to his positive account of the event in Londoner’s Diary, and meanwhile wish Good Luck to all councils and councillors trying to continue to deliver important sevices in a challenging environment.