“Councils will be at the top table” – Keir Starmer’s LGA Labour conference speech

Keir Starmer
© Rupert Rivett/Shutterstock.com

Below is the full text of the speech delivered to the LGA Labour conference 2022 by party leader Keir Starmer.

Thank you. After that brilliant speech by Shaun Davies, we can all agree the leadership of the LGA Labour Group is in very safe hands. Shaun – good luck for the months and years ahead, I look forward to working with you. And thanks too to Nick Forbes for your hard work, leadership, and friendship, and thanks to Alice Perry for your sterling service, and frankly powers of endurance, on the NEC, and to Peter, Martin, Hannah and Annabel, the staff of LGA Labour and Ellie at the Association of Labour Councillors.

Friends, colleagues – it is fantastic to be with you this weekend. When I look back over the pandemic, the British people rose to greatness. We looked after each other; we looked in on our neighbours; we shouldered each other’s grief. The pandemic revealed so many hidden heroes: shopworkers, shelf stackers, cleaners, refuse collectors, delivery drivers, care workers, teachers and our brilliant NHS staff.

And to this roll-call of heroes, I will add our councillors. Our councillors led the way, protecting the most vulnerable. Where Labour is in power across the UK, Labour councillors wake up every morning and go to work to: put our values into practice, carefully steward public resources, deliver the services on which people rely.

Some colleagues find themselves in opposition. But despite the frustrations of opposition – and believe me I know about those – I know you are rolling up your sleeves and getting on with the job.

On that night in May, it felt great to see Labour take control in Barnet, in Blaenau Gwent, in Bridgend, in Cumberland – a new authority but sitting under it Workington, Carlisle – and in Kirklees, in Rossendale, in Southampton and in West Dunbartonshire.

When we won Worthing, I knew we were doing well. But when I heard Labour had won Westminster and Wandsworth, I knew the voters were sending a clear message: Labour is back, and the Tories are on notice. And the latest Labour gain – Crawley in Sussex, after the by-election on 9th June. Labour winning in the deep south.

But something every single councillor here knows is that you are fighting with one hand tied behind your back. You are allocating ever-dwindling resources, making heart-breaking choices every week, digging deep to deliver core services. To run a council in this climate of cuts takes a laser-like focus on spending and a ruthless war on waste. Truly, Labour councillors are having to speak the ‘language of priorities’.

Imagine if local councillors behaved like Rishi Sunak, casually writing off £4bn he lost to Covid fraudsters. Or Sajid Javid. He’s setting fire to £4bn worth of unusable Covid masks and gowns. The Tories may as well be burning £50 notes in front of our eyes.

The truth is this – Rishi Sunak or Sajid Javid wouldn’t last ten minutes as a cabinet member for finance. They’d be in front of the standards committee within days. And imagine what your council’s standards committee would say if the council leader and his mates were holding booze-fuelled parties in the council chamber during Covid lockdown? They’d be out on their ear, and sharpish.

But the argument I want to make today isn’t really about resources or standards in public life. It’s about power. The United Kingdom is one of the most centralised systems in the world. For too long, too many decisions about local communities have not been made by local communities.

For too long, the view from Whitehall has been that our councils are a subsidiary of national government. The delivery arm for government departments. The creature of cabinet ministers. For too long, local government has had real-terms cuts in funding and then been blamed for cutting services. Ministers devolve blame when they should be devolving power.

Hoarding power at the centre has consequences. The Tories’ economic record is appalling. Low growth has led to stagnant wages and high taxes. And the reason they are not growing the economy is very simple. The Tories are failing to make the most of every part of the country. They are squandering the amazing potential that sits in our towns, cities, coastal areas and rural communities. The cost-of-living crisis is born of this.

And when you read the small print of the Tories’ so-called ‘levelling up’ agenda – and you should always read the small print – you can see it’s the same old story. Power exercised from the centre, increasingly unaccountable, with citizens shut out from the decisions that affect them the most.

The travesty of councils fighting it out for dwindling pockets of cash, with little clarity on why the few win and why the many lose. The public accounts committee reported that the selection process for awarding the Towns Fund had (and I quote): “not been impartial”. That’s one way of putting it! I call it divide-and-rule.

Levelling up. Build Back Better. The Big Society. We’re All In It Together. Whatever the Tories call it, it adds up to the same thing. An overarching, unaccountable, centralised state and a weakened local democracy.

But there is a better Labour way. A new partnership in power. This has a long history. At Labour’s founding conference in 1900, the original delegates included councillors from Bradford, Colne, Canning Town, Cardiff, Dudley, Halifax, Hull, Leicester, Keighley, Rotherham and Walsall

At the 1918 Labour annual conference, they passed a resolution condemning the ‘evils of centralisation’, In the 20th century, Labour councils pioneered social housing, slum clearances, comprehensive education, parks and open spaces, libraries and adult education and introduced foresighted policies for their LGBT communities, tackled discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.

We should be proud of all these pioneers – and recognise the tough struggles they endured. But we can and we should go even further. For the next wave of decentralisation and devolution, I have established a new Commission on the Future of the UK. And I am delighted Gordon Brown has agreed to chair it.

Gordon has already wasted no time in looking at ways to pass power to the people. As a matter of principle, decisions will be made as locally as practicable. A new wave of powers devolved to help grow local economies. An end to the uncertainty of one-year funding settlements, and more stable funding to allow councils to plan. More discretion for metro mayors and local government to spend their budgets how they see fit. No more pitting council against council for pockets of cash, instead – fair funding for your priorities. More joint working between councils, especially on local economic projects such as transport. A new way of bringing together local government, elected mayors and ministers to shape national policy. A new partnership in power.

Partnership is about bringing people together to solve problems and grasp opportunities. Seeking common endeavour for common cause. That’s what the Labour Party is all about. But the current government could not be more different.

Take the rail strikes due to hit next week. Nobody should want them to go ahead. Businesses will struggle with freight. School exams will be hard to get to. Hospital appointments missed. That’s why I have said the strikes should not go ahead.

But here’s the truth, Boris Johnson and Grant Shapps want the strikes to go ahead. They want the country to grind to a halt so they can feed off the division. Instead of spending their time this week around the negotiating table, they are designing attack ads. Instead of grown-up conversations to take the heat out of the situation, they are pouring petrol on the fire. Instead of bringing people together in the national interest, they are stoking division in their political interest.

And look at the shameless actions of the Home Secretary this week. The government’s Rwanda policy is designed to fail. [They] know it is unworkable and extortionate. And they knew that they were acting unlawfully. But they went ahead anyway. Because by picking a fight they could find someone else to blame and feed on yet more division. Once again, no concern for the public interest, just their own political interest.

And while they’re playing games, people are risking their lives in the Channel. And gangs of people smugglers are getting away with it. Nothing could make me angrier.

And I know many of you feel the same, we have to channel that anger. Because to get Britain back on track, we must bring to an end 12 long years of Tory rule. We must get out of opposition and into government. We must and we will win.

And when we do. The next Labour government will cherish your local talent harness your ideas, empower communities to shape their future, and encourage a flowering of local democracy. We will rebalance the power in this country, away from the centre and towards communities.

This is about taking an institution that doesn’t work for the people it’s supposed to and changing it. It’s about seeing a problem and fixing it. I’ve done that before, and I’ll do it again.

When I worked with the new Policing Board in Northern Ireland, we took a newly-formed organisation and made it work for every community. When I was director of public prosecutions, I overhauled the way it handled sexual violence cases to make it work for victims. When I was elected leader of this Labour Party, I turned it inside out and ripped out antisemitism at its roots, so that it serves working people and every community.

The Labour government that I lead will change Britain. And that it [serves] working people and every community. A genuine and permanent partnership in power with local government. Will tackle the climate emergency. And take the chance to lead in green industries and technology so we can end the era of sluggish growth. We will recognise there is an ageing population. And take the opportunity to begin building National Care Service which makes people as proud as the NHS does. A needs-based, locally-delivered system, where people are helped to stay in their homes and where carers are valued and supported.

You’re already achieving so much. I’m proud of Labour councils leading the way on tackling climate change: moving rapidly towards net zero; increasing recycling, reuse and reducing waste. But think how much more could be done if you had a Labour government that had your back: insulating buildings, investing in green transport and boosting green business.

The Tories want to cut the green crap. Labour wants to cut carbon. So to rebuild faith in our democracy, we have to start on the streets and estates, letter box by letter box, doorstep by doorstep. That’s why we set such high standards for Labour councillors. And expect the very best public service ethos from every Labour representative, no matter who they are. And as you know, I include myself and my team.

As Labour councillors, you are not only evangelists for your communities, but also ambassadors for our party. And by doing a decent job, you can help fix our fractured politics. From my first day in office, councils will be at the top table. The Labour government I lead will devolve in word and deed. It will empower councillors, communities and citizens. It will rebalance power from the centre and in favour of the people. It will build a solid and sustainable partnership in power.

And that partnership will build a better future. Where local economies thrive. Where the challenge of climate change is turned into an opportunity to lead the world in green industries and technology. And where we are joined in common endeavour for our common cause. Of delivering security, prosperity and respect for all. Thank you.

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