On Brighton beach: austerity, alienation and the battle for democracy

The neo-liberal project has purged democracy from almost every corner of our lives. In doing so, it has changed our understanding of the world, and so who we are. A council tax referendum in Brighton would be a signal that England's democratic soul is still alive.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
17 February 2014



Brighton beach, wikimedia

On England's edge, in a pebbly cove a little along the coast from where she rises, chalk white, from the Channel, a battle for her democratic soul is gathering. This isn't 1649, St George's Hill. It's not the Chartists or the Suffragettes; Runnymede or Putney. It's important not to overstate the significance of each skirmish in the centuries old movement of people against power in the bottom right two-thirds of Britain. But what's happening in Brighton could be, if we insist on it, a line across that pebbled beach.

For forty years at least, Whitehall has sought to freeze and squeeze the life from local councils and democracy from our communities. They have issued commands, cut funds, curtailed powers and, sometimes, abolished those who stand up to them.

The Coalition is continuing Whitehall’s battle to extract meaningful, autonomous power from local government. This is not because city halls are attacking them, or filled with “troublemakers”. Unlike the eighties, our councils have on the whole only whispered their complaints about the government. Most of them have basically complied with their orders from on high.

So, why is the government so insistent on garrotting local government? The answer takes us back to 1981, and to an interview the then newish Prime Minister granted to the Sunday Times. In it, she gave the clearest indication of the strategy of the project Stuart Hall gave her name. “Economics are the method: the object is to change the soul”.

If you wish to understand Thatcherism, I think this is her most important quote. She didn't see a change in economic policy as an end in itself but as the means with which to change the British people forever. Because once you've changed people, you've not just changed economic policy now, you've changed it for generations to come.

This is what the neoliberal project she has come to personify is achieving. We are less solidaristic and less likely to believe in social security than we once were. We may be stubbornly to the left of our politicians on issues like public ownership, but in general, we have become more individualistic than we were a generation ago.

Attitudes don't change through magic. They are the products of lived experience, which itself is about economic and social relations. And these are, in part, things the government can change. So, by carefully steering the economy, a sustained political programme can, as Thatcher put it, change our souls.

This basic insight, Marxian in flavour as it sees economics as determining attitudes and beliefs, is what the radical right mobilised around in their project to change Britain. Our growing lack of solidarity must surely be linked to such facts as, for example, that we move house for work more often and so are less likely to know our neighbours. Our shifting understanding of the economy surely relates to the fact that we are less likely to organise with our colleagues through a trade union. The use of the North Sea windfall made many more of us home owners with an interest in property prices. Telling Sid gave millions a reason to follow the bounces and tumbles of the stock market. When you are more interested in share value and property prices than you are in wages, your view of the world shifts. In a property owning democracy of this kind, more people are Tories. In the battle between decision-making through the market and decision making through democracy, Thatcher sought to purge collective deliberation from our day-to-day lives.

You see this on a national scale. Getting rid of rent controls means that your MP no longer has any impact on how much you pay to your landlord: that's left to the market. Selling off major industries means it's global capital, not the government, which is ultimately accountable for the jobs of millions. Measured through influence over our lives, privatisation reduces the value of every vote. And so a whole generation – my generation – grew up with a bounded politics: a sense that democracy is about abstract decisions for a distant world, a hobby like video gaming or going to Star Trek conventions, only less popular. We've grown up in a world in which it is the market which mediates decisions about our day-to-day lives, and we've accepted that this is how things are.

But it wasn't just the weakening of national democracy which changed us. The well-documented assault on trade unions was vital too. Workplace organising is one of the main ways in which people experience democracy day to day. It is not just the forum through which employees come together, but also where lots of us become used to the idea that you can decide the answers to questions based on collective deliberation and solidarity rather than one pound one vote and selfishness. The sociological impact of the vast drop in trade union membership is surely as significant as, if harder to measure than, any economic impact.

Once the constraints imposed by the Cold War had gone and the teeth of trade (& tenants' & students') unions had been yanked out, protest became post-modern. Marches became symbolic acts of spectacle, relying more for impact on a sense of public pressure than a grip, however contested, on levers of power, more on a media largely owned by those being protested against than any ability of the people to talk with ourselves.

Eventually, the belief in markets over movements even permeated the world of progressive activists, who in turn perpetuated it. My generation of young would-be radicals were brought up to believe that the way to change the world is not to organise as citizens or workers or voters or students or neighbours, but as consumers. We were taught to change our lightbulbs and lifestyles rather than change the economic and political system that was merrily flogging off our future.

It was an ingenious political trap, one which shifted blame from the seller to the buyer and pitted the pocket money of teenagers against the bank balances of billionaires in a power battle we were always going to lose. Solidarity became a lifestyle you could buy off the shelf, a new market for big business, not a principle of democratic organising. Of course we must all recycle, and it's better to buy products that don't cost the earth or rely on the exploitation of those who make them, but it's no political strategy.

But despite its success, this revolution was never complete. Unions survived; to an extent. And so too did the other main democratic forum close enough to most people for them to influence it – local government. This was not, of course, without a battle: the battle, arguably, which ended Thatcher's career.

The attempt to change the system through which we pay for local services is well remembered, the anti-poll tax movement made sure of that. What's less discussed is the vast centralisation of powers away from local authorities which came with Thatcher's rule. Her government battled, overruled, cut funding for, forced privatisation on and in some cases, abolished councils.

The centralisation was nothing new even then. In 1973, Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid spoke out against it in a speech reprinted in the New York Times. The broader subject of his speech – alienation – for me sums up why this matters. The process of making decisions locally and democratically binds us as communities. It teaches us from the outset that we can run things through co-operation, not just competition, that we are the collective masters of our destinies. It shows us, as Reid puts it in the same speech that “a rat race is for rats. We're not rats. We're human beings”.

National politics is a big and scary thing, and small groups of concerned citizens can rarely influence Westminster without some practice or training, whatever Margaret Mead says. Local politics, however, is of a manageable scale. You can get together with your neighbours and change it.

Take the example of trying to politically organise my neighbourhood. If you ask everyone what issues concern them most, they will talk about their rent and the NHS. But if you hold a meeting about one of these subjects, you get a small cluster of usual suspects. Call a gathering to discuss our controlled parking zone, however, and hundreds will show up. As far as I can tell, the attitude is this: rent is a matter for the market, so going to a meeting won't help. The NHS is a question of national government, and so we can't make a difference. Controlled Parking Zones, however, are a responsibility of the local council. And that's something we can influence.

People's first step into politics is most often into their local community, so if you wish to limit the scope of democracy and alienate a population from it, then limit the powers of local government. Once it's limited, it will have less impact on people's lives, there are fewer exciting things you can do. So people will be less likely to stand, less likely to pay attention, less likely to vote. As people lose interest, local politics becomes a preserve of an older generation and of political wonks. They in turn, put everyone else off even more. So you end up in a spiral of destruction. Think about your stereotype of a councillor or a local council. Then, like all stereotypes, think about how that image serves the powerful.

This process of eroding the power of town halls continues today, in five key ways.

The first is what seems like silly interferences from Eric Pickles but are actually a serious erosion of democracy: on parking, planning, bins, blogging, filming, praying, and, I kid you not, on flag waving. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government may have pushed through the Localism Act, but whilst his legislation has changed almost nothing in practice, he has been zealous in his desire to boss councils around.

The second front of attack on local democracy comes in the form of Michael Gove's academies and free schools. Lots is rightly made of the fact that these hand control to private companies. But they are just as much about that other fork of Thatcherite strategy: attack local democracy; assert Whitehall control. Academies, in particular, are funded by and directly accountable to the Department for Education, rather than the Local Education Authority (ie the local council). These restructurings are the tip of the iceberg: whether through exam targets or diktat curriculums, schools have been slowly placed under ever heavier Whitehall control under both Labour and coalition governments.

The third and perhaps most important way in which councils are being attacked by the central government is through monumental cuts to their funding. Whilst many Whitehall budgets are down a pretty disastrous 8%, striking at vital services across the country, local authority budgets are said to be down 38%. Most MPs rely for their re-election on councillors organising canvassing rotas and leafleting routes. It would be easy to imagine they would be better at politically defending their budgets than civil servants. The scale of disparity between these two figures, therefore, tells us a remarkable story. The Tories are at war with local democracy and the Coalition is looking to finish off the job Thatcher started.

The fourth way that the government is taking power from local councils is through bypassing them when allocating funding to local communities. In 2011, Osborne announced a new set of Enterprise Zones – harking back to Thatcher's Local Enterprise Zones. He chose ten of the locations for these low-tax areas himself, and another fourteen places have since been added to the list. To understand how they are undermining local democracy, just consider this example. In October, the Department of Communities and Local Government, who are the people cutting funding for local government, announced a £100 million capital fund for which the enterprise zones across England. They could bid for the money, and the deparment would decide wou would get what. At a time when councils are having their budgets cut by the same department, it's easy to see this as a direct transfer of money and so power to Whitehall.

The fifth and final element of this government's crusade against local politics is the cap on council tax rises in England. Whilst plundering funding from English local councils, the government has told them that if they wish to raise council tax by more than 2%, they need to hold a referendum (in Scotland there's been a freeze since 2007, in Wales there is no freeze and Northern Ireland has a different system entirely). They are now moving towards making that figure 1.5%. If inflation stays on target, that's a real annual cut in council spending.

Council tax is set by a mix of every level of local government in a given area. Sometimes, this includes three councils and a police commissioner. Since this law came in with the current government, of the many people setting rates, not one has chosen a referendum. Every single one of England's more than 300 councils has so far passed the cuts to their budgets on to the services for which they are responsible. For most, the largest chunk of their budget is spend on adult social care – things like day care centres for elderly people, home visits for disabled people; helping people who can't feed themselves eat, helping people who can't wash themselves wash, and so on. The results of the cuts already made have been brutal, but the referendum option has scared councillors more. Until now, at least.

In the coming weeks, councils will be setting their 2014/15 budgets. Already, one, Brighton & Hove, the (minority) Green administration, has announced it wants to hold a referendum on whether or not to raise council tax by a smidgeon more than inflation in order to save care services. Others are rumoured to be discussing this option as they look at what the impacts of the cuts they will have otherwise to make will be on the most vulnerable people in their communities.

It isn't clear that the Brighton referendum will go ahead. Labour and the Tories seem likely to team up to stop it. It isn't yet clear whether other councils will choose this option. But let's hope they do. And let's hope, as I have found campaigning on this in Oxford, that people are remarkably open to the idea of chipping in a little more to pay for the most vital care services for their most vulnerable neighbours.

Imagine if even just one city in England got together, and decided, democratically, that they weren't going to allow their elderly neighbours to have taken from them the services upon which they rely. Imagine if even just one city in England had a big conversation and voted to chip in a little more to save the service which ensures that the disabled stranger they pass every now and then on the street can still leave their house twice a week? And wouldn't it be magnificent if an attempt to stamp out local democracy was defeated in such a referendum? Council tax is far fom perfect. But it's fairer than cutting services for the most vulnerable.

Pickles is attacking councils not just because he hates public spending, though he does. He is doing it because they are one of the last vestiges of democracy in England. They are one of the only remaining corners of our communities not governed directly by Whitehall or the market. They are one of the few forums left where a group of neighbours can get together and learn how to organise politically to change something they don't like: where a small group of ordinary people can get together and change the world. I spent years training student activists. And I learnt one thing. Once people have changed something, they get hooked for life. That addiction to democracy terrifies the powerful more than anything else.

This is why the government is so desperate to snub councils out. Neoliberalism isn't a set of economic policies. It is a political and a sociological strategy. Its method is economics, but its object is to change our souls: to alienate us and then dismiss us as apathetic. For too long, we have let them erode away too many of our democratic forums. It would be nice to think that, on that pebbly beach on England's edge, the tide is turning.

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