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Tony Blair and centralisation

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
20 February 2007


Article summary

Turnout rates in English local elections are critically low.

They are not only the lowest in Europe, by a 12% margin, but also are falling further - by five percentage points since 1995.

This is a serious problem, because disaffection with politics eventually leads to bad policy, to the withering of checks and balances, and to the disappearance of one of the most important foundations of our joint identities - the choices that we make together to give shape to our lives.

The iconic moment in the Blair government's attitude to English local government is the 2004 defeat of the North-East assembly referendum. The causes of the defeat go back to the slow, constant battering that local government has suffered, going back at least to the introduction of the poll tax in 1989-90.

The emasculation is caused by Westminster's opportunistic habit of using local government as a mere administrative agency when it suits, and a scapegoat when it doesn't. This depletes the local legitimacy of government.

These tactics are depressingly shown in the workings of the parliament's Code of Conduct for local councillors - an Orwellian and circular definition of the "the public interest" that hands significant local-authority power to the shadowy Standards Board.

The solution is a confident and thorough adoption of subsidiarity. Only the issues that are essentially national or international should be served above the local level, and borderline cases should default to the local.

England: Blair's opportunistic centralisation

Turnout rates in English local elections are critically low. Averaging 40% before 1995, they are now at 35%. Two in three voters do not bother to vote in local polls. This is the lowest level in the European Union. In the Netherlands, with the next most apathetic voters, one in two voters turn out. In Luxembourg, almost all registered voters cast ballots in local elections.

Table: Average turnout at sub-national elections within the European Union

 

Mean (%)

 

Change (%)

 

before 1995

after 1995

 

Luxembourg

93

92

-1

Italy

85

80

-5

Austria

82

79

-3

Sweden

85

79

-6

Denmark

80

72

-8

Spain

65

72

7

Germany

72

70

-2

Portugal

60

62

2

France

68

59

-9

Ireland

60

50

-10

Netherlands

54

47

-7

Great Britain

40

35

-5

Belgium

93

-

 

 

This is a serious problem, because disaffection with local politics eventually leads to bad policy, to the withering of checks and balances, and to the disappearance of one of the most important foundations of our joint identities: the choices that we make together to give shape to our locally rooted lives. If local participation in public-sphere matters over which we have the most direct contact - schools, parks, policing, land-use planning - is a matter of indifference to most of us, then we are sleepwalking into a world of atomised sleepwalkers. The consequences will be felt in a generally impoverished public realm.

Tony Curzon Price is the incoming CEO of openDemocracy. He worked as a consultant economist for more than ten years. Since 1997, he has lectured on economics and energy policy to postgraduates at Imperial College, London, and at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Also by Tony Curzon Price in openDemocracy:

"Why fly?"
(12 June 2002)

"Holistic hunters' knowledge can be harmful"
(3 September 2002)

"Turning the tide: how fear will make People Flow obsolete"
(10 July 2003)

"iCommons for beginners"
(20 June 2006)

"The ‘as if' economist: Milton Friedman's legacy"
(27 November 2006)

"The wisdom of the openDemocracy crowd"
(29 December 2006)

"The Economist Redux" (5 February 2007)

"Who pays for openDemocracy?"
(6 February 2007)

"The openDemocracy crowd's wisdom: January 2007 market report"
(14 February 2007)

A slow emasculation

Tony Blair's reign started out optimistically for local government. Devolution for Scotland and Wales would be accompanied by a series of regional assemblies, directly elected mayors and a return to local democracy in London. Without a great deal of detail on the allocation of powers between all these new bodies, optimists could hope that authority would follow the legitimacy conferred by elections. But this programme was only just started; like the scene of a picnic after a summer storm disperses its participants, a few underused traces of the original plans are left abandoned.

The iconic moment came with the 2004 defeat of the North East assembly referendum. In 1997, the Scots had endorsed a parliament with real powers, while the Welsh - only just - supported an assembly with more limited autonomy. But when the voters of northeast England were asked to endorse the creation of a regional assembly, despite strong campaigning by Blair and his deputy, John Prescott, 78% rejected the proposal.

The assembly's powers were not well defined; the "no" campaign exploited the already low opinion of local government to argue for less of it, not more. Graham Robb, a leading figure in the "no" campaign, saw no irony in stating: "This result is a kick in the teeth for the political establishment and the London-based politicians who wanted to foist this upon us" - precisely when "the London establishment" was offering a way out of "foisting things upon us".

The causes of the defeat go back to the slow emasculation of local government, lasting at least back to the poll tax (or community charge), approved by parliament in 1988 under Margaret Thatcher, imposed first in Scotland in 1989-90, and abolished (after generating intense popular opposition that helped force the resignation of the prime minister herself in November 1990) in 1992.

A crude but tangible measure of the centre's ever-tightening grip on local politics in the years since the failed poll-tax experiment is the percentage of local expenditure that is raised locally rather than allocated by central government.

Chart K3b is taken from the soon-to-be-abolished office of the deputy prime minister; it shows that the locally funded portion of local government expenditure peaked at 60% in 1990, and collapsed during the poll-tax debacle. In order to make the poll tax even close to being accepted, the Thatcher government had to massively increase transfers from the centre. The autonomy of local government finance has never recovered. Chart K3a shows that government grants account for more than double the value of the council tax - which succeeded the poll tax in 1993 - and is the only significantly rising source of income for local authorities.

Finance is far from all there is to political power, but these charts do point to the large opportunity for the national parliament at Westminster to call the tune. In fact, the single largest increase in government grants - one third of the total since 1997 - has come in the form of "specific grants". This is money that comes on condition that it is spent on specific and detailed programmes, for example, sports facilities in schools.

The psychology of control

There is logic to the battering of local democracy. When central government collects taxes to pursue policy goals in education, policing or social policy, it often finds that formal authority lies with local government. But having made promises to act in some area - "Judge me on education" or "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" - it cannot easily abandon the details of policy to another elected layer of government. There is the ever-present temptation to treat local government as an agent of the centre, and mechanisms like specific grants are a good means to this.

But finance will not always provide a sufficient constraint. Some decisions - land-use planning, for example - are resolutely local and do not involve large taxpayer funds, but raise issues which the centre would love to control. The debate over new housing in southern England has been rich in centre-periphery conflict, chronicled by Christopher Booker and others. A house-price boom, especially in the south, has led to requests for new home-building in previously rural areas: affordable housing for teachers, nurses and service workers is regularly on Westminster's agenda. Locals have tended to react with strong and predictable Nimbyism, and have tried to exercise control on land-use through local government.

This is a case where financial controls over local councils are powerless to secure the loyal agency of local government. Instead, Westminster has instituted a model code of conduct for local authorities. The code establishes how and when a councillor should participate in decisions. It defines a notion of "personal interest", which quite properly needs to be declared and will usually bar an elected official from participation in decision-making if - for example - a land-use change applies to land a councillor owns.

However, the code also includes a definition of "prejudicial interest", which should also debar a councillor from participation. Prejudicial interest arises if a councillor's interest in an issue "is one which a member of the public with knowledge of the relevant facts would reasonably regard as so significant that it is likely to prejudice the member's judgment of the public interest."

The definition embodies the confident, but essentially top-down, view that there is an independently knowable "public interest" which knowledge of the relevant facts will uncover. And if a councillor might be thought to be veering from the course of discovery of the public interest, then he or she should not be involved in the decision. This conception of the role of the democratic process leaves no room for the notion that we elect representatives to government because they share our deepest interests. There is a Saint-Simonian ideal built into the definition of prejudicial interest that asks our local councillors to be "administrators of things, not governors of men". This, of course, is entirely the conception suitable to an agency of government.

Also on the legacy of Tony Blair in openDemocracy:

Roger Scruton, "Tony Blair's legacy"
(18 December 2006)

Norman Fairclough, "Tony Blair and the language of politics"
(20 December 2006)

Felix Blake, "Blair's foreign-policy legacy" (21 December 2006)

Brian Brivati, "The Blair audit: war, human rights, liberalism"
(8 January 2007)

Tina Beattie, "Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007)

In practice, the code is overseen by the Standards Board for England. This Westminster quango, with the tag line "confidence in local democracy", is actually more like local democracy's parole officer. Anyone can submit a case to the Standards Board - it is often other local councilors who do so - and the board assigns an "ethics standards officer to the case. There follows a six- to nine-month, quasi-legal investigation in which every aspect of the question is examined, and all parties are consulted. Here, as one of many examples (and selected at random from the board's summaries), is the 2005 case of Kingskerswell parish councillor Paul Bright:

"It was alleged that Councillor Paul Bright failed to declare a personal interest and withdraw from a council meeting in which he had a prejudicial interest ... The meetings were about a planning application for a new bypass and it was alleged that Councillor Bright had an interest because he was a member of a committee which opposed the bypass and his property was close to the proposed bypass site. It was also alleged that by participating in the meeting on 14 February and voting on the application, Councillor Bright sought improperly to influence the council's decision...

The standards committee therefore decided that Councillor Bright should be suspended from all Kingskerswell parish council meetings for two months and should make a written apology."

Whether or not the ethical officer finds against you as a councillor, the threat of an investigation is real and unpleasant; in politics, mud sticks. The pressure that the code creates to avoid standing for any elected post makes it all the easier for local councillors to take the lead from Westminster, even in cases where finances have not forced them to do so anyway.

Local councillors are only nominally part of representative government - as things stand, they are really a branch of central-government administration. In convenient cases, their remaining democratic legitimacy can be used by the centre to duck a responsibility. But this is obviously a recipe for the gradual depletion of the legitimacy of local institutions. And it is not as if that legitimacy is flowing to the centre: this is not a realignment of forces towards a leadership that is widely perceived to be needed - or even to be happening. This is not like the centralisation of politics in the United States under Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s.

Opportunistic centralisation is dangerous: local politics is where politics is most tangible, especially in a globalised world in which national politics do not control economy or perceptions of security. Deplete the legitimacy of local politics and you will empty out the political glue of the nation. The courageous and wise alternative would have been for Tony Blair to have persisted through the setbacks of his early decentralising impetus by applying a thorough principle of subsidiarity: for any policy area, always try to find the lowest level of government which encompasses all the information needed for a decision. And where there are grey areas, have a strong bias toward the local. This will make local politics matter and might actually save national politics from impending irrelevance.

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