Saturday, January 15, 2011

Southwark Lib Dems' Dilemma

I have been pondering what the result in the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election means for Southwark, and in particular for Southwark's LibDems. It seems clear that many of those who voted LibDem in Oldham in May 2010 switched their votes to Labour's candidate Debbie Abrahams in this by-election. And it seems equally cleat that many of those who voted Conservative in May 2010 moved their votes to the LibDems. There is no other logical explanation for the collapse of the Tory vote and the maintenance of the LibDems share of the vote.

So what does this mean in Southwark? At the moment I get the feeling that Simon Hughes and the Southwark LibDems are trying to carry on as if nothing has changed since last May. They are trying to oppose Government policy when it doesn't suit them, and then try to blame Labour's administration in Southwark for any difficult choices which we are obliged to make as a result of the Government's cuts.

But the difficulty for them is that things did change last May, and changed very significantly. Whether they like it or not the national LibDem Party chose to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives, and thereby indicated that the LibDem Party nationally preferred a right-wing solution to the dilemma posed by the election results to a left-wing or progressive solution. A formal coalition with the Conservatives was not an inevitable choice for the LibDems - they chose 5 years of what they hope to be guaranteed power with a right-wing party, rather than any more pragmatic solution. And no decision since May 2010 would seem to demonstrate that Nick Clegg's LibDems are not prepared to sign up whole-heartedly to the Conservative's approach.

At the end of the day national political parties are just that - national. They are led by a single Leader who sets the policy tone and framework and becomes the living embodiment of what the Party represents and offers to the electorate. Even the Green Party has recognised the need for a single identifiable Leader. And in national political parties other senior elected representatives "toe the party line" and demonstrate their support for what the Leader and senior figures say and do. Both the Conservatives and Labour know what happens when that does not occur! What the leadership of the Party does is important. Sometimes you can disagree with a particular policy approach, but it becomes impossible really to retain credibility as a Party member or supporter if you disagree with the national leadership's fundamental direction of travel.

So the point I'm making is that Southwark Lib Dems do have to recognise that their party's direction of travel is to the right. And that direction looks set firm. They also have to recognise that the Southwark Lib Dem party does not exist in isolation from their national party - after all Simon Hughes is the national Party Deputy Leader.

I have no doubt that many Lib Dem councillors, members and supporters in Southwark are extremely uncomfortable with this lurch to the right by their Party. And there will be many who recognise that if the electorate in Southwark behave as the electorate in Oldham have, Southwark's Lib Dems face real electoral difficulties.

Labour remains the only party of the left and centre-left, and all that we do in Southwark will be true to our core political beliefs and principles, representing the best in progressive politics. So I say to all Lib Dem councillors, members and supporters in Southwark - if you still wish to be part of the progressive politics of our country and our borough there will always be a place for you with Labour. It is your national party which has moved - not you or your beliefs. If you want to be a relevant part of the debate going forward don't think you have to put yourselves through the agony of pretending to defend Conservative policies - but join with Labour in fashioning a real alternative.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Southwark's Budget 2011

Later today I will be meeting with Grant Shapps MP, the Local Government Minister, to make the case for additional funding for Southwark in the next financial year. Southwark is the hardest hit of all London local authorities in the amount of money it will lose from Government grant next year - £29.7 million; with a further £17.2 million being taken next year.

This level of cuts is unprecedented and will mean that we will have to make some very difficult choices here in Southwark. No department or service will be unscathed - it is simply impossible for us to make 11% less money pay for all the same services. After you add in inflation costs and other unavoidable cost pressures the cut is equivalent to nearly £60 million.

Our meeting with Mr Shapps will also be attended by all three Southwark MPs, Harriet Harman, Simon Hughes and Tessa Jowell, as well as Cllr Tim McNally from Southwark's opposition LibDem group. Our message will be the same - Southwark will not be able to preserve all of its front-line services over the next year without some further financial support from Government.

I have no great hope that Mr Shapps will offer us any further funding - but he must at least recognise that the problems facing a borough such as ours are many - and expensive to solve. With consistently increased funding during the lifetime of the last Labour Government we did make real progress in tackling some of the real problems which flow from having an inner-city borough with high levels of deprivation. I fear that some of this progress will be lost if Mr Shapps cannot provide some real cash this afternoon.