Friday, November 24, 2006

Assembled with spare parts from other politicians

It's Friday, so it must be time for my House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Centrist compulsion

Somehow the different parts of Ruth Kelly do not fit together. The deep voice and the urchin haircut. Her humble background and the expensive private schools she attended - Millfield’s prep school and Westminster. Her rapid rise to cabinet rank while having four children. She is a minister assembled with spare parts from other politicians.

An Australian heckler once called out to the England spinner: “Lend us your brain, Tufnell, I’m building an idiot.” On Monday, opening that day’s debate on the Queen’s speech. Kelly had been given the brain of the most uncritical Labour loyalist. She unfolded a tale of how, in 1997, the government had inherited a country mired in misery. Today, we are all basking on the sunlit uplands of prosperity and peerless public services.

Kelly’s portfolio - ‘Communities and local government’ - is also made up of parings from other ministers’ responsibilities. Which is why the ensuing discussion ranged so widely. Joan Ruddock talked about Palestine: Charles Hendry talked about young offenders. Andrew Smith was concerned about unitary local government and climate change: Elliot Morley was concerned about reusable nappies.

For the Liberal Democrats, Andrew Stunell called for a revival of local democracy: “Public participation in elections is at its lowest level ever. The scope for independence for local councils to meet the needs of their communities has been more restricted by this government than by any previous government.” Andrew’s remedies for this were to return the national business rate to the control of local councils and also the “huge sums of money being spent by quangos in each local authority area”.

Ruth Kelly’s approach was very different. Talking about the need to isolate Mulsim extremists, she said: “It is … important that we build up the government office network and work with local authorities.” This look forward to a growth in quangos - a shadow local government run from Whitehall. At best, elected local councillors would be offered the change to work with this government apparatus.

This urge to centralise should not be a surprise coming from New Labour. Last week, Beverley Hughes, the children's minister, suggested parents would be taught nursery rhymes by the new ‘national parenting academy’.

Unlike Ruth Kelly, Labour policy fits together only too well.

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