A poke in the eye for local democracy

Alan Clinton, leader of Islington council, north London, answers the cr iticisms of a former colleague Local authorities are like massive liners - turning them is hard
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The Independent Online
It appears that hell hath no fury like a Labour councillor scorned. But the ranting attack on Labour local government from my former colleague, Leo McKinstry, in the Spectator, probably needs a reasoned response, otherwise Islington is going to ha ve to spend still more time shadow-boxing with the Aunt Sallies of "political correctness", interventionism and "whining social workers" that we thought we had shaken off.

It is sad that he has chosen to be a Tory hero for a day. Naturally, we feel betrayed by someone whose personal defeat at the polls has made him turn his fire on those who are continuing to improve services to the local community - an endeavour to which he once tried to make a contribution.

Take for example the charges of "political correctness" with which he so liberally peppers his article in the Spectator. He knows - and I have personally discussed this with him - that most of the apocryphal tales used to substantiate this remarkably recent phenomenon emanate from the over-fertile imaginations of Fleet Street and Tory Central Office.

He also knows (because he was chair of personnel in Islington) that we, in common with all Labour local authorities, are energetically tackling issues central to the management of change, such as greater flexibility in job descriptions.

It is the case that local authorities are like massive liners - turning them is hard. But then look at the facts. Islington council is in charge of a relatively small borough: it has 37,000 council homes, it processes 1,800 housing benefit claims in one week, it sweeps 123 miles of streets and collects rubbish from 75,000 households. It employs environmental health inspectors, drivers, teachers, librarians, painters and decorators - and that is just the start. It is an enormous multi-functional o rganisation that touches the lives of everyone in the borough: children, old people, men, women, black, white, tenant and owner-occupier.

And, of course, it is the largest employer in the borough by a considerable margin. That is important because, like many Labour leaders in local government, I happen to believe that a major part of our role is the direction of resources towards the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of our community. It is important that we pay our staff and give them decent conditions. Islington has a larger programme of manual apprenticeships than any other body known to us in London.

This is a precious and important responsibility taken on by local councillors: it can be frustrating; it is certainly hard work (combining the role of leader of the council with that of ward councillor and working full time, as I do, is very demanding indeed). But there are a great many new policies, for example, for improving our approach to equal opportunities and deliveringhigh-quality public services.

But more than that there is also genuine self-criticism and a growing awareness that we got some things wrong in the Seventies and Eighties, or that some of those solutions are inappropriate now. And McKinstry is not the only one to say we can't bleat onabout cuts when we are failing to collect arrears of council tax and poll tax. Anyone who has tried to solve these problems knows they cannot be solved in a day. But we are firmly committed to solving them and are taking active steps to do so. Implementing policies is always a difficult and complex process whether you are a Thatcherite, an Ulster Unionist or even a local socialist. That's democracy.

But there is equally a new dynamism and creativity in Labour local authorities. Our deepening understanding, for example, of the mechanisms of decentralisation (in principle as well as in practice) enables us to be confident that the Labour Party's proposals for Scottish, Welsh and English regional government, and for giving greater power to local authorities, will provide the basis for enhancing democracy and improving the quality of services.

It is a great tragedy that someone who worked in local democracy has now chosen to side with those who seek to destroy it. Labour is in the process of developing an exciting package of democratic reform to restore and extend democracy at every possible level and to push back the frontiers of the quango state.