Croydon politics may be a red-blue duopoly but next door in Sutton, the LibDems have just completed 25 years in charge. Here, Sutton councillor LESTER HOLLOWAY outlines his progressive approach to the national government coalition and the 2014 local elections
It’s been two years since Liberal Democrats in Sutton bucked the national and London trends by storming to victory over the Conservatives.
The result made local bigwigs the toast of the town with colleagues around Britain eager to find out the secret of Sutton’s success. So what is it like now, two years on and more than halfway through the council “term”?
Before I get on to this, a bit about my own experiences.
I remain at the foothills of the local government pyramid as a backbencher but I’m not bitter about it; this is the nature of politics, and I value my politics over personal advancement. This has been my motto for 20 years, half of which was spent writing in the “black press”, including as editor of the New Nation newspaper.
As well as being active in my ward of Sutton North, and fully participating in council committees, I have joined the board of Liberal Left – an organisation that wants to pull out of the Coalition and develop dialogue with other progressives in politics. And I am also involved with a race equality task force set up by Nick Clegg to fill a policy vacuum on these issues. I write a blog for the Local Government Association, have spoken numerous times on radio and at public events.
Many people are “invited in” to become councillors, which partly explains why local government remains stubbornly undiverse. I invited myself in, having been inspired by Barack Obama’s speech, made on the campaign stump in 2008, when he spoke about giving back to society.
In Sutton, Liberals recently celebrated 25 years of political control. There are many “old hands” on the council, including Lord Tope, who was a councillor back in the 1970s. My ward colleague Ruth Dombey recently stepped up from deputy to leader, replacing Sean Brennan who had successfully completed a full decade in the hot seat. Jill Whitehead, elected in 2010, is chair of the new Environment and Neighbourhoods Committee. Graham Tope, John Drage and Kirsty Jerome are no longer on the front bench.
It’s perhaps too early to judge what this means. What it should provide is a reinvigoration of Sutton Libdemmery, marrying the “old ways” of connecting with the public and running the council – that have been so successful for a quarter of a century – with a more modern approach needed for the immense challenges ahead.
Sutton’s demographics are changing rapidly and the overall state of the LibDems nationally means the 2014 local elections will be particularly hard. The party’s superb performance in the Worcester Park by-election will have given Liberals heart, but they will have to watch Labour – which is flickering into life again – and do more to appeal to the commuter class, especially those who have only recently settled in the borough.
I’m probably in a minority of one on this, but I think local LibDems need to distance themselves from Westminster and embark on an all-out war on the Tories, our main opponents. Sutton Tories are a pretty clueless lot, so we should not let the coalition hold us back in putting plenty of clear blue water between us and them.
After 25 years in control, there are still plenty of policy ideas coming forward – the recent Environment and Neighbourhoods Committee alone debated starting a new food waste recycling service and getting Chelsea Football Club to help reduce school absenteeism.
The challenge is to sell a new vision to local residents. Not just greener and fairer, but more radical in reducing costs to the public in these austere times. Sharing more backroom administration with neighbouring boroughs, more use of social enterprises to deliver services and facilitating collective bargaining to reduce household bills.
A genuinely futuristic approach to the internet would see the civic centre “opened up” with genuine interactivity with officers and councillors, allow instant monitoring of budgets and encourage the public to vote on spending choices on project A or B after hearing both sides of the argument. This process should be supplemented with strongly empowering Local Committees to decide what gets spent in their neighbourhood.
As we enter the second half of the four-year council term, it is time to sell a clear vision of the “New Sutton LibDems”, not just giving people more power but tapping their creativity to find solutions to problems. Setting goals for helping the poorest in society and working with agencies to make Sutton a beacon for starting new businesses and social enterprises.
And communicating this is a very human way. Not force-feeding people a “manifesto”, but bringing to life the direction of travel and what it means to them personally. But hey, what do I know, I’m just a humble backbencher!
- Lester Holloway writes regularly on his local blog, and on general issues here. And you can follow him on Twitter: @suttongoingon
- Inside Croydon: For comment and analysis about Croydon, from inside Croydon. Not from Redhill.
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- Brennan retirement signals shift at Sutton Town Hall (insidecroydon.com)
- Sutton LibDem councillor switches to Labour over incinerator (insidecroydon.com)
- St Helier decision puts Sutton MP Burstow on the spot (insidecroydon.com)