Posted: 09.10.18

London-Liverpool-Birmingham and back in 10 days

As it does every year, LCA dispatched teams to both annual Labour and Conservative Party conferences, in Liverpool and Birmingham respectively. We were there to measure the ebb and flow of the political tides pulling Britain inexorably away from the continent – and straining, no less, the bonds that tie the country together. But we were also tasked with locating London within this brewing storm.

The view from the North

The prevailing mood in Liverpool suggested that the Labour party’s internal gripes have subsided significantly, even as they continue to simmer under the surface. Many ‘moderates’  – particularly MPs and local councillors – still feel threatened by the creeping influence of Momentum, while the anti-Semitism debacle remains an open sore. Meanwhile, many members and factions may have been left unsatisfied with key motions passed by delegates – on the party’s Brexit positioning and its internal Democracy Review – but that feeling was driven, more than anything else, by the fact that they represented a significant compromise on all sides.

Moments of tension aside, the vast majority of elected officials and rank-and-file party members put on a relatively convincing show of unity. Ultimately, the conference proceedings, fringe events and relevant press coverage remained mostly focused on the substance of the party’s policy offer.

This contrasts with the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, which was largely overshadowed by the Tories’ divisions over Brexit. Criticism of the Prime Minister by the usual suspect(s) certainly relegated much of the party’s press machine output to the edge of front pages. In Birmingham itself, supporters of leading Brexiteers such as David Davis, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson piled into rooms at the conference fringe to hear them speak. At fringe events on other subjects, many speakers bemoaned what was often described as an ‘obsession’ with Brexit. And Symphony Hall, where the big speeches by ministers and other party grandees took place, did not generally attract much of a crowd.

But Theresa May’s supporters – led by Philip Hammond and Ruth Davidson – did eventually succeed in projecting an image of a Prime Minister still flanked by a cadre of loyal allies, while her speech generated mostly positive media coverage, notwithstanding her dancing. Despite successive knocks by Johnson & Co, May and Chequers still stand, if still precariously and as of this past weekend there is more confidence that her government can achieve a workable deal with the EU.

But what of London and London politics? Travelling north on both occasions, we wondered whether the capital would feature prominently in discussions, or whether it would be conspicuous in its absence. Would it be disparaged by delegates from the regions – as it sometimes has been – or would it be put forward as an example of an economic powerhouse with good local government to be imitated?

We noticed straight off the bat that on both conferences’ fringe, few events were explicitly dedicated to the capital and its issues. Each fringe hosted 400 events, give or take, of which only 4 or 5 were directly focused on the capital. We attended most of these, as well as other events on local government, housing, transport and health, to assess the state of the “London brand” and get a first-hand view of how London politicians positioned themselves.

 London councillors, where art thou?

In Liverpool, London Labour councillors were seemingly everywhere on the conference fringe. We saw Council Leaders, Cabinet members and backbench councillors from Barking & Dagenham, Camden, Enfield, Greenwich, Hackney, Islington and Lewisham, of the 21 Labour boroughs represented. Whether as event panellists or members of the audience, London’s local government representatives spoke for the capital’s particular circumstances and needs.

But they were careful to note that London’s wishes to not trump those of the rest of the UK and they eloquently argued that what benefits the capital also trickles out to the regions. Southwark Council Leader Peter John made an especially poignant call for all local authorities to be given the funding and attention they deserve as the backbone of public service delivery. John was speaking shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues from Leeds and Wolverhampton at an event co-sponsored by London Councils, of which he is also Chair.

At the same event, Barking & Dagenham Leader Darren Rodwell argued forcefully that councils of all stripes should band together and demand real and balanced devolution in England, with more powers and resources handed over by central government. Rodwell would perhaps have felt somewhat gratified a few days later, when Theresa May announced the scrapping of caps on councils’ ability to borrow independently for housing – though the details of when this comes into effect will only be announced along with the 2019 Budget, on 29 October.

But London Labour’s councillors came to Liverpool with just as many questions as they did answers. Perhaps they were reluctant to alienate their northern hosts? Or perhaps they were, much like their colleagues in the regions, exhausted by years of fighting a rear-guard action against austerity and making do with their government grants halved compared to 2010. Indeed, resisting funding cuts to date and looking ahead to a Labour government that will reverse them formed the backbone of London Labour councillors’ narrative. 

Whatever the case may be, all Labour councillors in Liverpool were acutely aware that they had narrowly avoided a significant demotion by the party’s Democracy Review. Proposals now ‘deferred’ for further debate next year would have sidelined sitting councillors and favoured grassroots party members. The proposals would have seen leadership candidate selection processes, as well as responsibility for drawing up local campaigns and manifestos, taken from councillors and given instead to local party members and ‘local government committees’. Further debate on these proposals is certainly an issue to watch in the months ahead.

In Birmingham, London’s Conservative-run councils were by default – with seven councils to Labour’s 21 – less ubiquitous. But the Leaders of Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea featured prominently in several fringe events. Councillors Nicky Aiken and Elizabeth Campbell gave very similar accounts of the lessons learned over the last year. They argued that a well-deserved reputation for reliable, quality services and low council tax secured their councils from a Labour takeover this May – but accepted that enduring success will require listening more to residents’ concerns and ambitions across all policy areas and especially in planning, housing, and skills.

Westminster Council’s voluntary Band H property tax did get an honourable mention or two at the Birmingham fringe, as did the Transport for London (TfL) “model” for integrated metropolitan transport developed under both Tory and Labour administrations – which was widely lauded as worthy of replication elsewhere. It is however notable that when the future of devolution and innovation in local government were discussed in Birmingham, other delegates did not always point to London, but to places like the West Midlands and even Labour-run Manchester and Bristol. Indeed, Aiken and Campbell themselves largely focused on “getting the basics right” and “managing” – much like their London Labour counterparts in Liverpool. When asked about issues such as devolution and regional collaboration, they generally limited themselves to disparaging Sadiq Khan’s City Hall.

 Searching for City Hall and the path to 2020

For their part, the Mayor of London and his team were present in Liverpool, but found themselves sidelined on the fringe. Last year, a fiercely fought behind-the-scenes battle and reams of newspaper coverage won Sadiq a place at the podium at the 11th hour. But this year, he benefitted from no such last-minute decision, even if his reselection as the party’s Mayoral candidate for 2020 was announced only a week before the conference. Then again, Sadiq was not alone in being passed by: fellow Labour Mayors such as Manchester’s Andy Burnham and even Liverpool’s Steve Rotheram were also left to wander the fringe as the shadow cabinet and rank-and-file party members dominated the main conference floor.

In his appearance at a London First-sponsored fringe event, Khan spoke from the same playbook as Peter John in arguing that government spending on Crossrail 2 and other major infrastructure projects in London will not just benefit the capital, but unlock jobs and growth in other areas of the country. Khan also sought to flatter businesses as the real engine of growth – which could be seen as rather brave, in the context of an increasingly left-leaning party. Sadiq also spoke at a LabourList event, where he is understood to have focused on party unity. Khan’s Deputy Mayor for Housing James Murray was also present at the conference fringe and it is worth noting that he spoke with particular confidence and pride on issues relating to his portfolio – especially on kickstarting council housebuilding and efforts to boost affordable homes’ delivery through the planning system.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) Conservatives were present in Birmingham, where Assembly Member Shaun Bailey received a warm welcome. Bailey was elected by party members in London as the party’s 2020 Mayoral candidate only the week before conference. He spoke briefly at an event dedicated to discussing policies for the party’s “Manifesto for London,” as well as delivering a speech from the main conference stage. While Bailey’s verve on both occasions was commendable, he focused his energy mainly on criticism of Sadiq Khan’s mayoralty, with little reference to a positive Conservative vision for London. Meanwhile, his speech in Symphony Hall unfortunately coincided with a barrage of publicity relating to attacks on multiculturalism in a pamphlet he wrote for the Centre for Policy Studies back in 2005.

If the Tories are able to claw back any territory in London – in 2020 and beyond – one thing is certain: placing their bets only on a negative campaign built on criticism of Khan will simply not suffice. It was however clear that a number of fringe discussions in Birmingham reflected a growing awareness of this. At an event hosted by ResPublica and Westminster Council, Conservative Vice Chairman for London, and notional campaign director for the capital, Paul Scully MP argued that the Tories can only be successful if they leverage “bridge values” allowing them to connect with demographics traditionally reluctant to vote for them. Success might come if they tailor their messaging and policies to local communities and if they pool the creativity and enthusiasm of Tory activists from across London. Scully notably pointed to the manifestos drawn up by Bailey’s erstwhile competitors, Assembly Member Andrew Boff and Councillor Joy Morrissey, to argue that the candidate should “shamelessly rip them off” and not let their good work go to waste.

Several prominent Labour figures, including James Murray, Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees and former Newham Mayor Sir Robin Wales, were present at the Birmingham fringe. It made us wonder whether the adversarial relations between Khan and the Conservatives will permanently prevent him from attending the Conservative Conference – and whether that will in turn restrict his ability to build bridges and make a stronger case for London to government.

 Taking stock

Did the “London brand” shine like a beacon this conference season? No, it didn’t. While that is important to reflect upon, it should not be a cause for despair. One thing to keep in mind is the relative dearth of eye-catching London stories to build a positive narrative on this year – the Olympics are now long gone, Crossrail 1 and 2 are not quite charging ahead of late, and the airport expansion debate is once again at an uncertain juncture. Furthermore, London and Britain as a whole are undoubtedly experiencing troubled times – and the storm is far from over.

But on the plus side, London is far better placed than any other part of the country to draw on a fundamentally strong economy, resilient local and regional government, as well as experienced leadership across all sectors. The LCA team saw all three of those factors at play on the conference fringes – even if they were a little muted. We experienced the strengths of its leaders most vividly at dinners we co-hosted with law firm Mishcon de Reya and the New West End Company in both Liverpool and Birmingham (with Sanctuary Investments also sponsoring the latter).

On both occasions, we assembled leading Londoners of all political hues and from both public and private sectors to discuss the future of regeneration, focusing on how they can collaborate to build thriving new communities and deliver inclusive growth. We more specifically discussed whether regeneration has now become a “dirty” word. The debate in Liverpool saw attendees focus on the need to rebuild trust with increasingly sceptical communities. But our dinner in Birmingham was marked somewhat more by criticism of central government, with attendees calling for local and regional authorities –  and the private sector – to be given the tools they need to drive forward regeneration. You can read detailed accounts of those high-level discussions in articles by the Estates Gazette’s Damian Wild, who chaired the debate at both dinners (see here and here, or the print editions of 29 September, p. 36 and 6 October, p. 45). Suffice it to say here they reassured us that London’s leaders are not resting on their laurels. They are prepared to step up – and crucially, evolve and adapt – to meet the challenges of our fast-changing times.