Let’s not be churlish. It is a very good thing that Edinburgh Labour has launched a consultation document – Moving Labour Forward – on its website, seeking views on some policy ideas it has for running the City of Edinburgh Council.
The premise is a sound one and shows that the party is getting its act together ahead of the local government elections next May.
The central concept of a co-operative council and exploring how key functions and responsibilities can be mutualised to better effect is interesting. And welcome too. We need ideas on how to take profit out of public service and maximise bang for buck, especially when there are fewer bucks to go around.
What did I like? The plan to give local communities a greater say and benefit from local parks and green spaces. And to give clubs involvement in the running of sport pitches and pavilions. I also liked the idea of promoting an Edinburgh green energy co-operative.
And at last, someone is prepared to explore the idea of a tourist tax and to use its proceeds to subsidise Edinburgh’s festivals – the burd hopes, to free up current taxpayer grants for other purposes. And hallelujah for the idea of a city-wide childcare co-operative, though I doubt private nurseries and providers currently making a killing from exorbitant fees would agree.
Otherwise, it’s all a little safe and stale. And Labour’s twin bogeys of private sector partnership and a hardline approach to community safety are still very much in evidence. Worse, Labour is still thirled to and in thrall of the idea of running the cooncil as Edinburgh plc. A trap, incidentally, that the SNP fell into, when it had the opportunity to change the culture at Edinburgh City Council to become more responsive to and in tune with local residents’ needs.
Labour’s number one priority is wearily familiar – it’s about making the city more prosperous! And to do this, it proposes the same old, with a lot of effort and focus on tried, tired, tested and failed methods of pump priming. Whatever happened to the idea of a better way?
Getting tough on crime, at least on paper, is still attractive: “we’ll seek to set up a special antisocial behaviour unit to target hardcore offenders across the city”. Ignoring the fact that responsibility for policing and community safety is likely to move outwith local government control and that actually, many residents would like to see serious and violent crime targeted with zeal. Or is Labour proposing to set up a civil alternative to policing? No thanks.
There’s also some tough talk on local accountability. A Labour administration will spend its time “doing what the city needs, not chasing Government targets” and will make “officials accountable to the city’s needs, not to rules made to suit them or the Government”. Which might make for a rallying cry on election leaflets but bears little relationship to reality. Councils have far fewer targets to meet under the SNP Scottish Government than they had when Labour and the Lib Dems were in charge. Ring-fenced funding is almost a thing of the past: yet, there were over 90 ring-fenced funds imposed by the old Scottish Executive.
Where councils are made to do things, often the underlying rationale is to ensure that society’s most marginalised are protected and provided for. There is a purpose to statutory duties and responsibilities that often relate to the needs of pensioners, disabled people, homeless families and vulnerable children.
Bizarrely, Edinburgh Labour’s consultation document is entirely silent on social work services and on addressing poverty and deprivation. Social justice appears to be an outmodish concept in current Labour circles. The idea that Edinburgh City Council can thumb its nose at legislative requirements might be appealing, but is in fact dangerously simplistic and potentially disastrous.
My cynical side is apt to think that Labour is banking on reaching out to Edinburgh’s burgeoning middle class with its airy-fairy notions of petitions committees, Transport Forums and Budget Committees. Enabling the articulate noise-makers to have their already loud voices listened to will do little to bridge the gap that exists between the haves and the have-nots in the city. It might prove to be vote-winning but is not what local government is for.
Ultimately, Moving Labour Forward has some good ideas, but as a foundation document for an election manifesto, it is currently more than a little half-baked. If it is to win its way back to power in Edinburgh, and indeed, in other councils around the country, Labour needs more, much more that is roots-based and innovative but also realistic and feasible.