Tony Blair's town hall revolution

New Labour has captured local government across the country. John Rentoul on an Independent survey which reveals just how much the party has changed

The Conservatives, looking for a silver lining after this month's disastrous local election results, hope a national landslide has swept "old Labour" activists to power, and that local government will become Tony Blair's Achilles' heel. But a survey of councillors by the Independent suggests they are wrong to expect a return to the happy hunting grounds of "loony left" Labour councils as in the Eighties.

Our survey paints a picture of a party in transition, with new Labour councillors leading a "New Labour" revolution.

On the morning after the local elections, Mr Blair seemed to share the expectations of the Conservatives that many of his new councillors might indeed be "old Labour" militants, when he reminded them of their "special responsibility" as "ambassadors for New Labour".

But his fears seem misplaced. In the councils we surveyed, gesture politics is dead and high spending has been stopped by capping laws. Some "old Labour" beliefs still have a strong emotional pull, but are being sublimated in a changed world. "Pragmatism", "realism" and "serving local people" are the new recurring themes.

There are two kinds of new Labour councillor. About half are long-standing party activists, who have often been councillors in the past, or are jumping ship from county councils which are about to be abolished. The "genuinely new" councillors tend to be in their thirties, usually men despite all Labour's attempts to increase the proportion of women, and to agree with Mr Blair that the party has to change, although some of the changes they find hard to take in practice.

The evidence of our survey is that the younger, more recent party members tend to be more "New Labour" than their experienced colleagues. But many of the old guard have undergone a change of heart, and a union tie does not necessarily mean "old Labour".

Moss Evans, the former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, is a remarkable symbol of Labour's change. He has been reincarnated as the Labour leader of King's Lynn council, aged 70. He does not sound like the union boss who brought down James Callaghan's pay restraint policy in 1978: "Our priority is good relations with the business community to generate new employment. We are not going to create any sort of revolution, our approach is pragmatic. We cannot increase spending really, but we do have different values and different priorities."

Relations between Labour councils and their employees are now as distant in nature as they are in time from the winter of discontent 16 years ago.

Portsmouth, where Labour took control of a "hung" council on 4 May, is an extreme but not unimportant example. Last year the minority Labour administration began an aggressive programme of putting services out to commercial tender. The press office is supposed to call it "externalisation", but Leo Madden, the leader, is happy to call it privatisation. Earlier this year, leisure, refuse collection, building and grounds maintenance services worth £18m a year were hived off. And on 4 May Labour gained four seats from the Tories to win a majority of one.

The defence-dominated city, which sent off the Falklands task force in 1982 in a spasm of jingoism, is a symbolic gain for Labour as important as its advances in Essex. Many Labour councillors work in defence-related jobs, and the Conservatives ran the council from its creation in 1973 until the poll tax elections of 1990, when Labour took over in a joint administration with the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Madden, a "pragmatic rather than ideological" civil service union official, says privatisation "did cause us trouble with the local Labour Party, and still does", but he emphasised that 60 per cent of council staff had backed it. He boasts that he has "relentlessly pursued non- poll-tax-payers", allowing an 11 per cent cut in council tax.

Despite Conservative propaganda about average council tax levels, there is usually surprisingly little difference between the parties on spending. The Tory averages are lower because a minority of Tory councils spend considerably less than the Government allows them to.

But in most cases where Labour is taking over from the Tories, it finds that the council was already spending up to its cap limit. Tory laws have drawn the sting of one of the fiercest arguments between the parties.

Brian Wilson, a new councillor in Castle Point, when asked what Labour had promised in its local manifesto, said: "Not a great deal. We're realistic."

On the important question of what might happen under a Labour government, it was hard to detect huge pressures for greater spending. Jack Straw, as shadow Environment Secretary last year, made it clear that some form of capping would remain. And defiance of the law is no longer espoused anywhere.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of "Newness" is in the attitudes of new Labour councillors to Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown's "New Economics" - including his refusal to pledge higher taxes on the better-off. This was an issue which caused widespread dismay among party members in 1993, when Mr Brown only just scraped on to the national executive committee in last place.

A new councillor in Portsmouth, Terence Bryant, a 36-year-old blue-collar government service worker in the TGWU, backed Mr Brown, although he said the tax system had to be made fairer: "We will get nowhere if we don't learn from past history. That is one of the things which killed us in 1992."

Graham Heaney, another new councillor in Portsmouth, said taxes on the better-off should not be raised "as a matter of principle - it is a purely pragmatic decision; if we have to do things for the education and health services, then we should say to people that they have to pay more".

Our survey suggests that the arguments of the "modernisers" have won more ground at this important level in the party than many realise - although the unexpectedly high 85 per cent vote among party members for the new Clause IV did demonstrate a dramatic change in grass-roots opinion. There are dangers in Labour's dominance of British local government - but they are not the dangers of the gap between Labour councils and public opinion which plagued the party in the Eighties. The danger is rather that incidents of incompetence or corruption will stand out in the overwhelmingly Labour landscape.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

News
people

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
arts + entsJK Rowling to publish new story set in wizard's world for Halloween
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch
tv

Greatest mystery about the hit BBC1 show is how it continues to be made at all, writes Grace Dent

Life and Style
tech

Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into conflicts
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'
film

"History is violent," says the US Army tank commander Don "Wardaddy" Collier

News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
football

Striker's four-month ban for biting an opponent expires on Friday

News
news
News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
News
George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin married in Venice yesterday
peopleAmal and George Clooney 'planning third celebration in England'
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Focused Business Analyst - Finance and Procurement System Implementation

£350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reading are...

Head of Business Development and Analytics - TV

competitive benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Outstanding analytic expertise is req...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM - A high q...

Head of ad sales international - Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you the king or Queen o...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker