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Policies, not parties

Whatever politics they represent, local councillors in England have to forge alliances to influence government.

Karen Gold reports Wiltshire Conservative Peter Chalke discusses policy with Tory front bench education spokesman Damian Green every Tuesday morning at the House of Commons. Cornwall councillor Val Cox is on the team of Liberal Democrat education spokesman Phil Willis. But on the last two occasions when Labour councillor Graham Lane was due to lead a local government discussion with the Secretary of State for Education, the meetings were cancelled.

Does that contrast reveal the Labour Government's attitude to local councils? Or does it highlight the difference between keeping the footsoldiers happy when you need them but setting them aside once you get some real power?

Probably a bit of both. For Labour has not always been able to brush its local councillors aside. When Tony Blair's Government came to power in 1997, its landslide spilled into local government. Labour had more than 50 per cent of the local council vote; it ran every committee on the Local Government Association (LGA).

Into the Education and Lifelong Learning chair went Graham Lane, former leading light of the Socialist Education Association. He is the long-term chair of education in Newham, East London, which has a reputation for radical, our-schools-take-all inclusion.

Since then Labour's vote has fallen back; no single party now rules the LGA. But in those heady days, when Labour's 1997 Education Act seemed about to write local government out of the script entirely, Lane achieved a major coup. He persuaded ministers to add a last-minute clause giving education authorities a duty to improve standards in their schools. Like the cavalry coming over the horizon, standards-raising gave LEAs a role just in time.

But the question of whether LEAs are still a force to be reckoned with in politics has not gone away. In fact, it unites Tory and Labour politicians against a common enemy: their own national leaders. Two years ago former Tory leader William Hague parachuted Peter Chalke into the LGA from Wiltshire to boot irate local government Tories back into line as they furiously rejected their party's policy of "free schools".

Since then, Chalke has done a lot of talking. "Free schools" have gone, although the latest Tory education policy - created by a working party which Chalke chaired - removes the word "authority" from local education.

It also proposes that the "raising standards" duty be replaced by monitoring and a customer-contractor relationship.

He thinks he can sell the new policy to local councillors across the country. "We won't get people jumping up and down over this because we have consulted them and we want to work together," he says. "I don't think local government has ever really talked properly to its parliamentary colleagues.

That's why they haven't had trust and co-operation that continues into government."

While Chalke focuses on councillors in finding a reason for the disconnection between local government and Westminster, Labour's Graham Lane points the finger at civil servants. He gives an example: "We said 'why are you doing police checks on school governors?' to civil servants in front of David Miliband (school standards minister) and he said 'Yes, why are you doing them?'"

He does not have much time for Labour policy wonks either: "City academies: they've never been through the party system, they're an idea from Adonis (Tony Blair's education adviser). Almost the whole Labour party is against them." As for David Blunkett, Lane once called him "the worst education secretary since John Patten".

When Estelle Morris was secretary of state, local authorities had a much friendlier ear, he says. Nevertheless, the list of policies on which local Labour has failed to influence national Labour is a long one: grammar school ballots, ring-fencing of budgets, and the latest plan - which has him incandescent - to hand over a national education maintenance allowance system for 16-18s to the private sector.

In fact, all the parties in the LGA are united on this. And when they unite against the Government, they do sometimes get their way. After hard lobbying in the House of Lords last summer, for example, they saw off the Government's attempt to give school forums (local financial planning quangos) decision-making rather than advisory powers.

Lane and Chalke work together despite personal friction. "There's very deep political division between us and the Tories," Lane says. Chalke responds:

"Graham is not the easiest person to deal with."

Holding the ring between them are former RAF wing commander Don Rule, a pro-spending Independent from Herefordshire, and Val Cox, a radiographer, Citizens Advice Bureau trainer and Lib Dem councillor from Cornwall.

Despite instinctively taking educational positions closer to Labour, the Lib Dems regularly find themselves allied with the Tories, particularly in the face of Labour's centralising tendencies.

But the LEA abolition vultures still attract powerful supporters among the Tories, as well as Labour. John Redwood MP, the former Conservative minister, recently published a pamphlet calling for LEAs to become service contractors.

The Blairite Social Market Foundation's director Phil Collins spots the same signals in Labour. "I know the role of LEAs is being looked at again in one of the units that swirl around Downing Street," he says. "We wouldn't invent LEAs if we didn't already have them."

Against that background, local party divisions tend to be set aside in favour of survival. The six-term year, learning and skills councils, playing honest broker in teachers' pay negotiations - Graham Lane says they are all examples of where LEAs are still making political waves.

And it may be useful for the Government to have someone to blame when schools fail to meet targets or increased education spending turns out less revolutionary than promised. Local politicians have to forge alliances, whether among themselves or with peers and the press, says Val Cox. "This Government is really not genuinely interested in including local government. We are eventually listened to, but we are not always taken notice of. We do sometimes change things, but we have to shout to make ourselves heard," she says.

Here lies the answer to another question: whether local education authorities are still a force to be reckoned with in politics. They may be, at some times and in some places, but it depends on the alliances they can forge.

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