And, yes, decisions made within authorities are politically driven too. But it’s important to recognise that the unfavourable contrasts being painted by the media between Labour Liverpool and Manchester, set to lose thousands of jobs and facing fierce cuts to public services, and my own borough of Tory Trafford, lauded for the apparent modesty of its cuts, oversimplify the picture.
It’s true that cuts are more modest in Trafford – it’s a much smaller authority for a start. But more to the point, under the Tories it’s never been generous in its service provision, preferring to hold down council tax rather than invest in the public infrastructure – cutting what we never had is hardly a mark of greater efficiency. What’s more, cuts are happening in Trafford, indeed they’ve been cutting enthusiastically for years and years. Day centres for the elderly and disabled, children’s centres, youth services, the antisocial behaviour team, the youth offending service, libraries, parks, free swimming for the elderly, residential care homes, all face or have already felt the axe. And in a classic example of callousness, redundancy notices were sent to hundreds of staff at the start of Christmas week.
In parliament, Trafford’s often held up as a model on both sides of the house when local government is debated. The Tories praise its efficiency; Labour, meanwhile, points to the favourable treatment enjoyed by this rich Tory authority. As one of two Labour MPs in Trafford (Paul Goggins’s seat straddles the Manchester and Trafford boundary), this is a cause of great annoyance. There’s nothing to praise about the Tories’ stewardship of the borough, and nothing privileged about my constituency, with high levels of deprivation, poor health outcomes and rising unemployment. In Trafford, the Labour-held wards are always last in the queue for spending on local amenities, whether it’s regeneration of our local communities or sweeping the snow from our streets. Officers talk the talk about ensuring spending is targeted on the most vulnerable, but decisions made by Tory councillors belie this talk in practice. This week, for example, we learnt that half a million pounds is to be spent on cutting parking charges, yet nearly £700,000 is to be slashed from children’s centres. It speaks volumes about their priorities.
But the Tories need to tread carefully, for the electorate is far from unaware of what is going on. Out on the doorstep over the past few weeks, the Tory vote has felt decidedly soft. People are worried about the cuts, they agree this is all happening too fast. While Labour has far from sealed the deal, the signs are starting to show that Ed’s message is getting through. So this May’s local elections are both a challenge and an opportunity, and the learning from the doorstep is clear: flashy politics aren’t what’s needed now. In Trafford, and in the country as a whole, our priority over the next few weeks is simply to hammer the message on cuts home.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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