Chris Leslie, Director, New Local Government Network
If a week is a long time in politics, then Labour’s conference in Bournemouth could well set the scene for the next five years ahead. There is much speculation about a possible General Election in the autumn should the Prime Minister seek a public mandate before the new Parliamentary year begins. Only Gordon Brown knows whether he might make such an announcement, perhaps even this week. If he does, then many of the other parties might be caught on the hop with their policy plans and key messages still unfinished. If Brown doesn’t opt for a General Election this autumn, all eyes will turn to the next wave of announcements and decisions he is likely to take on key policy challenges. Parliament is due to convene again from 8th October, followed swiftly by a ‘Comprehensive Spending Review’ where Brown and Alistair Darling are to fundamentally rethink how taxpayer’s money is allocated for best effect. Fighting crime with extra police officers, improving productivity in the NHS and investment in education and skills are likely winners in the recasting of public expenditure priorities. These are three issues which, after all, are pencilled in for the spotlight at Labour conference this week. The extra resources to flow into these priorities will mean a tough settlement for other areas of public spending, where new money will have to be found from internal savings and efficiencies. For the first time, the Chancellor has combined this Spending Review announcement with a ‘Pre Budget Report’ statement, which means that tax might also on the table, perhaps with a few sweeteners.
The global economic anxieties which triggered the collapse in confidence in Northern Rock is a topic bound to dominate Prime Minister’s Questions in October. Should there be more stringent guarantees for ordinary savers and borrowers from the Treasury and Bank of England? Could more be done to encourage prudent borrowing and stable debt levels? When the Queen’s Speech is delivered in November, Gordon Brown’s legislative priorities will also become clear. Housing is towards the top of his agenda – more so now that mortgaging and remortgaging are hotly discussed over dinner tables across the country. The PM is engrossed in the need for housing supply to increase, because high demand for a limited number of homes has pushed house prices beyond reach for too many in society. Affordable housing and decent homes for those most in need is a core principle Labour wants to deliver on, but there are no quick-fixes here. Tough choices on allocating land for construction, and in my view allowing local authorities to play a role again in the supply of new build properties, must be on the cards.
The Queen’s Speech will no doubt contain new security measures to fight organised crime and combat the terrorist threat, something the Prime Minister had to contend with in his first weeks in office earlier in the summer. International ‘events’ will always shape the political mood, and the looming European treaty ratification process may resuscitate the perennial questions about EU integration. But here in the UK there are also some critically important constitutional questions that need attention.
Although not reported widely, Gordon Brown’s first statement to Parliament in July was about the ‘governance of Britain’, rejuvenating the powers of Parliament and limiting the powers of Ministers and the executive. There were some tantalising suggestions that the Prime Minister is considering the devolution of power from politicians in Whitehall, with further announcements due later in the year. We have seen laudable attempts at engaging more with the public on policy through “citizens’ juries”, but rebuilding trust and confidence in the democratic process must also involve power shared more with local communities. Could the next few months see Ministers doing the unexpected and giving away power to the regions, to councils and to neighbourhoods? If local politics becomes worth fighting for again, then might more people be attracted to get involved? These are some of the crucial challenges Labour is likely to pursue this autumn – that is, unless a General Election takes everyone by surprise.