Saturday, January 19, 2013

Council leaders should pay heed to Kinnock's warning

 Earlier this week I tuned in to an interesting radio discussion about whether, in the era of instant communication via text messaging, email and Twitter, set-piece political speeches still retained any relevance.

The discussion had been precipitated by perhaps the most long-awaited and over-hyped set-piece political speech of recent times – Prime Minister David Cameron’s planned address on Britain’s relationship with Europe.

The consensus was that, while such speeches still had their place, it helped if the politician concerned had something new and original to say – as for instance Margaret Thatcher did in her famous Bruges speech of 1988 when she set her face against a federal Europe.

In that respect, perhaps it was a good thing that Mr Cameron’s proposed speech ended up being postponed, given the expectation among commentators that it would say little to appease his increasingly Eurosceptic backbenchers.

But if Bruges was, for those on the right of politics, the setting for the seminal political speech of modern times, those of a Labour disposition tend to look to another town beginning with B – namely Bournemouth.

For that was where, in 1985, Neil Kinnock delivered the Labour conference address subsequently credited with launching the party on the long road to recovery after the wilderness years of the early 1980s.

The historical significance of the speech was that it marked the start of a fightback by Labour modernisers against a hard left faction which had rendered the party unelectable.

This process of internal renewal would eventually lead to the creation of New Labour and, electorally speaking at any rate, the most successful period in the party’s history.

But in an era in which a Conservative-led government is once again imposing spending cutbacks on Labour-run councils, could Mr Kinnock’s great speech have a new relevance for today?

What he was railing against in Bournemouth was the kind of gesture politics typified, not just by Militant-controlled Liverpool City Council, but by a host of other Labour authorities of the era who used budget cuts as a means of ratcheting up political pressure on the government.

The key sentence in the speech was Mr Kinnock’s warning – delivered in the face of a heckling Derek Hatton – that “you can’t play politics with people’s jobs, or with people’s homes, or with people’s services.”

And more than a quarter of a century on, it’s people’s services that are once again at stake in Newcastle, as the city council decides how to implement what it claims are the £90m worth of savings demanded by the Con-Lib coalition at Westminster.

Council leader Nick Forbes’ decision to target some of the cutbacks at libraries and the arts has caused deep and bitter controversy in the region, but is actually nothing new in the annals of Labour local authorities.

Whether consciously or otherwise, he has taken a leaf out of the book of David Bookbinder, the left-wing firebrand who led Derbyshire County Council at the same time as Mr Hatton was running Liverpool.

Faced with a similar set of cutbacks in the 1980s, Mr Bookbinder decided to take the axe to a series of libraries in Tory-voting middle-class areas as well as scrapping school music tuition.

But just as Derbyshire’s voters saw through his attempts to blame the government for the sorry situation, so Newcastle’s are increasingly beginning to question who is really to blame for the present-day cutbacks.

Save Newcastle Libraries campaigner Lee Hall has made clear his own view on the matter, accusing Councillor Forbes in a speech last week of wanting to “make a name for himself” and wanting “a platform to rail at the Coalition.”

“Instead of trying to protect our libraries, our enormously successful arts organisations, Forbes, for his own political aggrandisement, is trying to cut as much as possible,” he said.

David Bookbinder’s unique brand of showmanship made Derbyshire a great place to be a local government reporter in the 1980s, but ultimately his attempts to play politics with people’s services did Labour no favours in the county.

Perhaps Councillor Forbes, too, should now take heed of Mr Kinnock’s wise words of warning.