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Monday, 11 February 2013

Political Leadership in Brent

There is a lot of rhetoric around political leadership, so I thought I would post on what I think it means in my context.  Many of the attacks on Brent Council seem misguided to me not only in the sense that the real source of the decisions is the attack on the whole concept of local government, but also in their view of political choice generally.

I think political choices are essentially value judgements between different priorities.  In principle, officers and civil servants can use their expertise to answer technocratic questions like How much would this cost? Is this legal? How many extra people would service if we did X?.  What they cannot do is say that, for instance spending money on domestic violence services is more or less important than spending money on (say) library services.  At least they cannot know better than anyone else, and that is why in democratic institutions, elected people make those decisions.

These questions of priorities become much more acute at a time of shrinking budgets. The most famous exponent of this view was Nye Bevan who famously declared that "The language of priorities is the religion of Socialism."  I get the sense that many people simply are not willing to face up to the priority choices that Councils like Brent have to make.  They retreat into denialism of the Far Left type ("Just spend the money.  Set an illegal budget") to the Eric Pickles type ("There is so much waste in local government that you can cut the budgets simply by cutting waste without hurting services").  Some people manage to combine both views at once.

I think that real political leadership consists of facing the problems squarely, and making changes to preserve or enhance the key priorities, even if that means that you offend various special interest groups or politically motivated individuals.  Failure  to face up to these problems simply leads to salami slicing where everything is treated the same and effectively no political choice is made because the politicians are not prepared to make it.

A few examples from Environment and Neighbourhood Services might illustrate the point:

1) When we were first elected, I told officers that one of our first priorities would be to improve recycling.  At the time, I thought this would be much more controversial than it turned out to be.  I still see disbelief from my Labour colleagues in London when  tell them we have introduced alternative weekly collections and it is quite popular.  Plenty of Councils are scared of doing the same, and they will have to divert ever increasing resources into paying for landfill as a result.

2)  Much more controversially, we  decided to concentrate our library service on a smaller number of buildings and invest in Library services rather than just "hollow out" the service.  I have covered that area before in many posts. We are now starting to see the benefits.  Opponents of this policy should recognise that without the difficult choices made, the bits that everyone should welcome, like improvements to the home delivery service, would never have happened.

3) A third area we have chosen to positively develop is our arts strategy.  Famously other Councils, like Somerset and Newcastle, are cutting Arts altogether.  I am a strong believer in the potential for our Arts strategy to contribute both economically and socially, but that means not promoting something else.

4) Another political choice that Brent is developing more is to seek to make all our services contribute to the economic well being of residents.  Again this is not an automatic choice.  I can easily envisage a Tory who believes in the Nightwatchman state saying that we should not attempt it.

5)  Our very strong environmentalist commitment is another area where we have chosen to take a particular route.   To try to cut carbon emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change is again a political choice.  There are plenty of Councils not pursuing climate change with anything like the fervour of Brent.

6) The Civic Centre is another case of strong political leadership.  When we were elected in 2010, there were siren voices to say the project should be cancelled.  We looked at the facts, and decided to go ahead.  The voices against have not largely gone silent.

What all these policies have in common is that they are based on a firm set of priorities, a careful assessment of the evidence, and some courage in answering groups and individuals who opposed them.  Once the policies are shown to be successful, the opponents tend to go quiet.  For instance I doubt whether either the Tories or the Liberal Democrats now to have opposed our recycling changes.  What else is political leadership supposed to mean?

I really don't understand anyone who stands for office without being willing to make these kind of choices.


This is already a very long post, so I have responded to the comment below here.


Anonymous said...

You have, yet again, missed the point. You did not run on a manifesto that stated those policies. And, you decided many of them agsinst the clearly stated will of your consituents. You dictate and steamroller - and where on earth do you get the idea that weekly collections are "popular"? Those "opponents" you so glibly dismiss are the electorate. You state that the choices are made on priorities, assessment and answering objections: where, in all of that, is actually listening?

Leadership is not about imposing your will on others.

Anonymous said...

Ofcourse Recycling is up - the the Blue Bin is 20 times bigger than the old Green Box but our streets are full of discarded black bags and people just chuck anything in the Recycling they feel like.
Do something about about this contamination.

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