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Localism: the new politics of old

About the author
Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Executive Director of Democratic Audit.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has published a remarkable pamphlet to coincide with its annual conference, taking place in Harrogate this week. The glossy, professionally-designed eleven page document is what we've come to expect from local government these days. It is the text which is surprising. The pamphlet is written with a passion, immediacy and radicalism unheard of in local government circles since the days of Red Ken's GLC, David Blunkett's Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire and Derek ‘Deggsy' Hatton's Militant resistance in Liverpool. Even the title of the pamphlet - ‘Who's in Charge? A Manifesto for a New Politics' - is reminiscent of the language associated with the radical localism of the New Urban Left in the early 1980s. Much of the text could have been borrowed, with minor modifications, from David Blunkett and Keith Jackson's (1987) book: ‘Democracy in Crisis: The Town Halls Respond'.

As such, established local government commentators will recognise that there is nothing particularly new in the demands made in the LGA's manifesto. It advocates rolling back the unelected Quango state; radical decentralisation to bring decision-making down to the lowest possible level; making local NHS bodies accountable to the electorate; a genuine power of general competence for local government, and real fiscal autonomy, including returning to councils the power to set local business rates.

The surprise is that these demands are being made by the usually ultra-cautious LGA, and that the case for them is underpinned by a sense of (justifiable) anger in a text whose authorship is jointly credited to the Leaders of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Independent groups within the Association. Consider this as a joint statement from the three main parties in local government: ‘Expenses scandals have catalysed a more fundamental and longstanding sense that the system doesn't care about the interests of real people and is run by cosy insiders for their own benefit'. Or this: ‘Until people have a real sanction over the things that matter most to them, they will, quite rightly, feel that voting doesn't matter, except as a way of venting their frustration with a political system that they feel works for the politicians, not for them.

In these times, such critique is possibly too easy. The far more intriguing part of the document, which provides its greatest claim to radicalism, is that all the main parties have signed up for an agenda of ‘more politics, less state'. On page three, the authors suggest the following:

Voters unsurprisingly feel excluded, disempowered, and angry. And while they vent their anger on politicians, the basic truth is that they want to see more politics, not less - just not the stale politics of national parties. On the contrary, it is the remote and unresponsive executive state that must shrink. In terms of the power and influence they wield, government must become smaller and citizens bigger.

This notion that the state must shrink and government must become smaller might seem at first sight to imply that the Conservative majority within the LGA was dominant in shaping this manifesto. This sort of language could equally be interpreted as being seriously at odds with Labour's preference for the interventionist state.  But to see things this way would be to miss the point. There has always been a suppressed strand of radical Labour thought which favoured community and cooperative, rather than state, control. This is the neglected Guild Socialism of GDH Cole, rather than the dominant ‘commanding heights' state socialism of Sidney Webb, a vision of associational democracy in which fraternity and liberty matter just as much as equality.  Notably, many Labour politicians seem to suppress their own preferences for such approaches, particularly once they become Cabinet Ministers, as the following extract from Blunkett and Jackson's (1987) book would seem to suggest:

We do not feel that the state should be the only means whereby people in need can find help and support (...) Collective community support, of the kind formerly seen in so many towns and villages, is vital, alongside the formal state provision. What we need is to do things together, rather than having them done for us.

Of course, like Blunkett and Jackson's writing, the LGA's pamphlet is a product of its times. Radical proposals for democratic reform have become de rigueur in the heady political atmosphere which has prevailed in elite circles since May 09. But, as I've argued elsewhere, it is far from certain that the reforming spirit is percolating through the Populus as a whole. Like others desperate not to miss this opportunity to push for reform, the LGA seeks to ‘front load' its case for change with questionable references to the apparent public desire for a new political settlement. The first paragraph of the text makes the following claim: ‘in the first week of June, the public spoke loudly and clearly through the ballot box. Voters want to see the political system change in response to their frustration with it'. Elsewhere the document asserts the superior democratic legitimacy of the LGA's vision for a new politics: ‘the LGA is made up of politicians who, unlike those at Westminster, have seen their mandates refreshed at the ballot box since 2005'.

This sort of analysis is seriously problematic. The local and European elections of June 2009 did produce dramatic results, but to argue that the public spoke loudly and clearly at the ballot box is plainly wrong. The vast majority of the electorate stayed at home, just as they normally do for local and European elections. We have no basis at all for assuming that continued large-scale electoral abstention indicates a widespread desire for radical change centred on a far-reaching programme of decentralisation. In this sense, the LGA are as guilty as other reformers who risk putting the cart before the horse. The actual case for constitutional reform and political decentralisation is the other way around; it is only through radical change that we will restore public confidence in our politics and be able to bring about a reversal of the mass boycotting of the ballot box which has become the most obvious hallmark of contemporary British democracy.

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