As the Liberal Democrats gather in Bournemouth to start their so-called fightback, amidst spurious claims of potential Labour defections by their newly elected leader Tim Farron, the reaction in Greater Manchester has been one of bafflement.
To us, the Liberal Democrats have always been the ‘believe in nothing, say anything’ party. All things to all people, never particularly standing up for any kind of vision, just offering to be the better option to keep the other lot out; never shy about using dirty tricks and hideously distorted graphs to overstate or minimise support for their opponents.
At best you could pay them grudging respect for their resilience – the cockroaches of local politics who could survive the nuclear fallout of their own national meltdown.
We know the party paid a heavy price for their dalliance with the Tories in government, reduced as they are to eight members of parliament. But this is a party searching for a purpose and identity, electing a leader who expected to out radical Labour, instead was left confused and without position on the compass.
As I look at their benches during Stockport borough council meetings I ponder the political hinterland of this peculiar ragbag of defectors, scheming opportunists and, occasionally, old style-Liberals. Away from meetings they will claim in a quiet moment that they only stand as Liberal Democrats because ‘you have to around here’ – seeing office as more important than principle or values. In neighbouring Tameside, they do not even field candidates.
Local government reform and budgeting is hard enough in an age of austerity but it is this lack of a political ‘true north’ that has resulted in job cuts, poor service delivery and no coherent vision for Stockport’s ailing town centre or its profound transport needs. It remains the only borough in the Greater Manchester conurbation to border the City of Manchester and yet be unconnected to the successful Metrolink tram network.
A 25 per cent reduction in headcount at the council since 2011 represents a constant salami slicing of services, which prove to be a false economy, pushing expenses onto other parts of the public sector or storing up problems for the future.
It is a sharp contrast with the widely heralded reform of Oldham’s transformative co-operative council under Labour leader Jim McMahon. And for Labour’s thoughtful new group leader Alex Ganotis, such severe proposals just would not have been necessary if the Liberal Democrats had been more proactive in transforming services during the last five years – citing the missed opportunity of failed attempts to allow residents to interact digitally with the council as an example.
‘People in Stockport need a different approach to that of the Liberal Democrats, who have not significantly reformed local services since the cuts began in 2010’, says Ganotis. ‘Labour would put local people back at the heart of decision making, making it easier to get in contact with the council, and would focus on targeted early investment where it is most needed, saving money in the long-term and providing better outcomes for the people of Stockport.’
In the 1980s the Tories pointed to Labour in local councils as a demon danger of what the ‘loony left’ would do in government. Today, the situation is in reverse. The long term reforming, empowering and progressive future of our party is taking place in council chambers and community activities. For those of us in the trenches of this important battle, there is no place for alliances with the Liberal Democrats and any thought of joining them is laughable.
Michael Taylor is former parliamentary candidate for Hazel Grove and vice-chair of Hazel Grove constituency Labour party
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