The irony is that I’m now getting more and more excited by politics. Having been a self-declared semi-detached politician for so long I’m re-thinking it all.
There are a few reasons for this. For a start, I’m increasingly becoming a fan of the coalition. I was instinctively against coalitions, I’m not sure that horse-trading – with the third placed party conducting negotiations with both Labour and the Conservatives – should be the way the government is formed.
But that’s what we were left with. And the end result isn’t too bad. I was pleased to see the strong commitment to civil liberties, for example, that came out from the coalition agreement and pleased to see that localism remains a key policy (whether or not it’s wrapped up in the ‘Big Society’).
The other reason for my rediscovered excitement is the challenge we all face. And this isn’t just the Conservatives, or Liberal Democrats, nor just central government, but everyone. The letter left by Liam Byrne, Labour’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to his successor was telling: “I’m afraid there is no money.” A revealingly honest assessment from a government that, having run up record debt, put off the difficult decisions that needed to be taken.
We will all be paying the price for some years to come. It is a price we would have had to pay whatever the outcome of the election, and it won’t be easy. So why am I excited by something that is likely to be so painful?
It’s because it makes politics important again.
I wrote an article for the Local Government Information Unit’s C’llr magazine recently that used an example of some work I did with a local authority in the north. The political leadership had decided that council tax was too high and needed reducing, so they asked council officers to do this.
Of course, council officers couldn’t reduce council tax. They looked at the services they were providing and ran them effectively and efficiently, they didn’t waste money. But they couldn’t take decisions on whether spending on the elderly was more important than spending on reducing teenage pregnancy, or whether investing in playgrounds should take priority over investing in roads – they needed a political steer on what services were nice to have, and which were the essential priorities to the political leadership.
And that is the sort of thinking we will all need to do in the coming months and years. How do we want our areas to develop and what is the best way of making sure that happens? How do we define what is nice to have and what is essential to maintain a healthy and happy society?
To me, that is the new politics. For the past thirteen years Labour has been reducing local government to little more than a delivery agency for their national policies. Now, with a new government, and new challenges, local councils are likely, once again, to free to be the innovators and deliverers who can make a real difference to their neighbourhoods.