The London Borough of Wandsworth is a shining example of how radical modern Toryism works in practice in an inner-city area, says Peter Bingle.
It is understood that Nick Timothy – often referred to as the ‘PM’s brain’ – is a great fan of Joseph Chamberlain, the maverick politician who transformed Birmingham. Chamberlain once famously said ‘never think beyond the next fortnight’ so perhaps he was the first Blairite!
Nonetheless, If the ghost of Joseph Chamberlain is now inhabiting Number 10 this is a welcome development as the Tories need to reclaim metropolitan Britain. Under Cameron and Osborne, the Tory party retreated from cities and towns up and down the land including London where the party had once been strong and often politically dominant. There was a time in my youth when the Tories controlled Birmingham and had a clear majority of MPs in Greater London!
There is no need, however, for the PM, her advisers and ministers to travel up to Birmingham. They simply need to get on a charabanc and travel across the Thames to the London Borough of Wandsworth to understand how radical modern Toryism works in practice in an inner-city area. Over the last thirty-eight years the transformation has been truly astonishing.
Wandsworth was once described as ‘the jewel in Mrs Thatcher’s crown’ and the reason was very simple. Wandsworth Tories were Thatcherite before Mrs Thatcher herself. Through a radical policy agenda including the outsourcing of services, cutting spending, promoting home ownership and tackling the dreadful legacy of the Inner London Education Authority, Wandsworth became the Tory flagship council. A Labour controlled council from 1971 to 1978 it has been steadfastly Tory ever since although it was a close-run thing in 1986 when control was retained in a difficult year nationally by just one seat!
Wandsworth’s mantra was very simple: Lowest Tax. Best Services. Those four simple words proved politically very powerful. Wandsworth Tories conclusively demonstrated that residents – rich and poor – could enjoy some of the best delivered council services in the country at a price that was demonstrably value for money.
Nine Elms symbolises what is special about Wandsworth. Not only will it deliver 15,000 new homes with at least a quarter of them affordable, it will become one of the top destination areas in London. Apple’s decision to locate its UK headquarters in Battersea Power Station is merely the latest vindication of the policy agenda being pursued by Ravi Govindia and his colleagues.
So, Mrs May and her team should be taken on a tour of the borough. The Wandsworth Story shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to the PM. For eight years from 1986-1994, the PM was a local councillor in neighbouring Merton. Even in her days as a councillor she will have known there was something special about Wandsworth.
Of course, Wandsworth isn’t the only London borough doing amazing things. It has, however, been doing it for longer than anybody else which proves that it is possible to be both radical as well as politically popular. Peter John in Labour-controlled Southwark is proving the same thing. There are too many politicians at Westminster who are terrified of doing anything radical or different for fear of scaring voters. They should have much more faith in ordinary voters.
On a related point, some of the best local authorities in the country are Labour controlled. Ministers and shadow ministers have much to learn from what is being done in the likes of Haringey and Southwark. Local government is often much better than central government at dealing with difficult issues and transforming people’s lives within constrained budgets. Some humility from Ministers and their shadows would be appreciated. The result would be better governance.
We are living through transformed times. Areas of the country are changing literally daily. Again, Wandsworth is a good example of this. The population has changed beyond recognition since May 1978 and inevitably their expectation of what they need or indeed want from their local council has changed. Tried and trusted slogans need to be refined and honed. What has not changed, however, is the need to deliver high quality services at a reasonable price and to offer residents genuine high quality housing options.
The PM is very different to her predecessor. She clearly has a much better understanding of what it is like to be an ordinary hardworking family or a single hard pressed young professional. In her own words, those of us who are ‘just managing’. In the months and years ahead she can use that understanding and empathy to deliver revolution and transformation across the country. Labour has no obvious response…
The real problem is that central government is often cumbersome and inefficient. Tories should never really trust the concept of the big centralised state. ‘Parcellised sovereignty’ to quote Perry Anderson is surely the much better approach. Local government is increasingly leading the way in service delivery and economic transformation and as such should be the primary means of transforming Britain. There needs to be a genuine rapprochement between central and local government. Council leaders and their colleagues need to be shown more respect by ministers. If they are the effect will be transformational.
I hope Mrs May and her senior colleagues will be on that charabanc to Wandsworth in the very near future…