3 December 2009
Enhancing the role of local government could improve the quality of MPs, who otherwise lack managerial experience, a prominent Conservative council leader has said.
Stephen Greenhalgh, who is leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council and also heads the Conservative councils innovation unit, was speaking at the Public Finance round table event in central London on November 26.
He pointed to France and the US, where members of the government had typically served at a regional level earlier in their careers.
‘If you’re going to fail, fail running Alabama, fail running Texas, fail running the city of Paris – don’t just take over the country.’
However, Greenhalgh found himself the centre of controversy because he also suggested the shadow Cabinet was not experienced enough to run the country.
‘My mates are all in the shadow Cabinet, waiting to get those [ministerial] boxes, getting terribly excited,’ he said. ‘Most of them, they haven’t run a piss-up in a brewery.
‘They’re going to get a department of state, in one case running the finances of the nation.’
Greenhalgh, who this autumn announced the borough’s fourth council tax cut in as many years, is known to be a close ally of Opposition leader David Cameron. He has also been held up as an example of good practice by shadow chancellor George Osborne.
Within minutes of his remarks being published on publicfinance.co.uk, the story was being widely reported by bloggers and in the national media.
But experts have backed Greenhalgh’s analysis.
New Local Government Network director Chris Leslie, who served as a councillor in Bradford from 1994 to 1998, and as a Labour MP from 1997 to 2005, agreed that local government is good training. ‘Councils are mini-governments, after all,’ he said.
NLGN figures show that just 45% of Conservative and 44% of Labour prospective parliamentary candidates have been councillors.
Geoff Mulgan, director of the Young Foundation, told the round table: ‘Our tendency is to do pilots on 60 million people, which is a very odd way of doing business, and to do political apprenticeships
at the Cabinet table.’
But Colin Talbot, public policy professor at Manchester Business School, said that he detected no political will to bring about more than marginal increases in the power of local government.
‘It’s not just the politicians – it’s the civil service,’ he added. ‘Despite 30 years of civil service reform, the vast majority of senior civil servants still have no experience of running anything outside public services.’