Some thoughts on Cambridge Labour Party’s manifesto for the local government elections in May.
The manifesto is here, and is worth reading. Clearly a lot of thought and effort has gone into it – and sets down a marker for the other political parties to respond to.
There are a number of interesting policies and proposals in there. For me it’s nice to see a couple of the things that I have been calling for over the years being included in there. I don’t mean this as a ‘Isn’t it nice that their party is adopting the policies that our party has, showing how wonderful we are over them?’ perspective. I see it as councillors listening to people within their constituencies and taking on good ideas to include in their manifesto. So credit where it’s due in particular to Cllrs Lewis Herbert (who I have been exchanging emails with on this), Sue Birtles and Richard Johnson for turning ideas in this blogpost into a specific manifesto commitment on page 7 – a Cambridge Community Fair.
There are more than a few ‘unknowns’ in there to be aware of. Things that call for reviews and investigations in themselves are not policies. The word ‘review’ appears 29 times in the document. This can indicate many things, such as:
- either the evidence base isn’t yet there
- options have not yet been investigated to implement a specific policy
- politicians are unsure how to proceed
- politicians want to study the impact of existing approaches, to see if there is a better way forward.
“Anything specific that stands out?”
Under each title heading in their manifesto:
Protecting essential services
Reversing the cut to pest control services is as expected – which is good to see. Personally I felt that this was a false economy by Cambridge Liberal Democrats. At the same time, is there a better way of using data to map when and where pest incidents happen (& publicise this) to help with prevention? There is also a noticeable focus on targeting those in the most economically deprived wards in Cambridge, and/or those that provide services to those most at risk. Again, understandable in the face of massive cuts to local government budgets. At the other extreme, I’d be interested to know what Labour thinks are the things the council does/funds that the public according to them values the least.
Sharing the city’s prosperity
There is a party-political divide here, with Cambridge Liberal Democrats questioning whether there is a town/gown divide, while Cambridge Labour states there most definitely is one. While the divide has been reduced in recent decades, it is still there. It’s one of the reasons why I’m glad that Labour has included a policy on making Cambridge University facilities open to local residents. I raised this at a community consultation event in Cambridge in late 2012 (see my blogpost here). Again, having this in a local party manifesto makes it easier for local residents to go and challenge institutions – both councils and colleges – to respond on delivering this. On the living wage and apprenticeship programmes, while welcome I’d like to see how councillors will bring the rest of the public sector & their contractors on board (noting the campaign of the Cambridge University living wage campaign). Should Labour take control of the council, will they be able to say ‘We have a democratic mandate for a living wage across the local public sector’?
The Housing Crisis
Again, my view on all things housing is that Cambridge is a small city struggling to cope with the vultures of the international property speculation market. There’s only so much local government can do. Policy-wise they seem to have included as much as is reasonably possible. However, they could have included a line in there saying that the real levers of power on this are held by The Treasury.
Safety and quality of life
This is a big issue, but one that I don’t think councillors over the years have ever really got a grip of – in particular regarding ‘soft prevention’. On tackling domestic violence, the hard work of local Labour activist Ann Sinnott has paid off – she attended a number of council meetings in person to raise this up the local political agenda. I also think they need to take a different approach to stopping the already drunk and underage from buying alcohol – a headline approach that doesn’t seem to have changed since my childhood.
“What do you mean?”
When I was in my mid-late teens, some of the councillors (who are still councillors today almost two decades later) pressured the police to crack down on underage drinkers. That put my generation in this strange situation where it was easier for us to get hold of illegal drugs compared with alcohol. (Drug dealers don’t ask you for ID). There doesn’t seem to be anything about engaging with young people about their ideas for tackling the problem of alcohol-related street violence, something that they are even more likely to be on the receiving end of.
Cambridge Labour states it supports the creation of a Cambridge unitary authority. The problem is that creating it requires an Act of Parliament. Labour shadow ministers need to learn the lessons of their botched attempts with Exeter and Norwich in 2010 over attempts to create unitary authorities there. (See here). How to raise it up the agenda? Do what me and Puffles did with the Oxford-Cambridge railway: Next time a very senior party shadow minister (or Ed Miliband himself) visits Cambridge, in the public Q&A (that they always do), state the clause in the manifesto and ask if s/he’ll back the proposal at a national level. (See here).
Making Cambridge Greener and Cleaner
The challenge here for councillors is being able ‘to leverage’ input and resources from the wider community to support what the manifesto proposes. There are community groups there that can help. In terms of the detail, I’m interested in seeing how Labour, if elected would plan, co-ordinate and sequence the various actions they have listed, so that the impact of what they plan is greater than the sum of their parts.
Transforming the council
You can sort of spot the ‘Puffles clause’ in there:
“We will actively engage with social media but are aware that many residents prefer traditional methods of communication.” [P19]
There are a couple of things that chime with some of the things I put in my last blogpost – see here. In terms of ‘traditional’ methods of communications, I would have liked to have seen their manifesto saying something about community notice boards (& their locations), & going to where the people are. Should we have community notice boards at busy bus stops? Should we have consultation events at schools and supermarkets? I agree with the changes to the area committees – though again I’d like to see the proposals go further on bringing other public bodies there for scrutiny by councillors and residents. For example attendance by a senior manager from Addenbrookes should be a given at the South Area Committee because of the huge shadow (in more than one way) it casts over our part of town.
“Isn’t it all a bit…’safe’?”
There isn’t anything that stands out as particularly radical, dynamic and innovative – or anything that has a ‘Wow!’ factor in there. Perhaps with good reason: Given a tightly contested city, why do anything that might risk chances of taking control of the council for the first time in years? Such has been the focus too on the functions of the city council that perhaps it’s limited the scope of vision – a pattern across local government in general?
I would like to have seen the needs of under-18s having a more prominent profile. Although nominally falling under the county council’s remit, schools are not mentioned as community assets at all. This for me is a huge omission – particular in my part of South Cambridge where there is a lack of standalone community facilities. (Queen Ediths’ ward currently has no pub, for example).
On the campaigning and communications side of things, I wonder if the city council will have the resources to deliver on these in the ‘traditional’ manner. Personally I think the council will struggle, which is why planning, sequencing and significantly improved community partnership working is essential. That means significantly improving working relationships with institutions that the council might otherwise have had very limited contact with in the past. One of the other risks that Labour will need to manage if elected is their working relationship with council officials. When one party has held power for so long, it’s easy for the new administration not to want to trust council officials.
“Is the manifesto enough to win the council for Cambridge?”
Yes – but…
But…is it enough for them to keep hold of the council in 2015?
The looming general election is the big uncertainty, which may also explain why this manifesto feels safe rather than radical. I also get the feeling that the current Cambridge Liberal Democrat administration is exhausted. The wafer-thin majority along with the continued pummelling from Labour as a result of Westminster and Whitehall politics left the Liberal Democrats trying to defend things that as individual councillors they had no say in. In one sense, a smart tactical move by Labour as it seeks to build momentum for 2015. On the other hand, it might provide Cambridge Liberal Democrats with a breather, returning refreshed and revitalised for the 2015 general election campaign.
“How will the other parties respond?”
No doubt they’ll study it carefully, and chances are you’ll see a number of similar policies in theirs too. There are a number of specific ideas that would not look out of place in the manifestos of other parties – the Cambridge societies fair being one of them. One thing to watch out for is what the Cambridge Conservatives manifesto looks like under the new look leadership. I’m also interested to see what Cambridge Green Party come up with given the increased frequency of visits by their lead European Candidate Rupert Read this year.