Challenging the myths about localism

While attention is rightly focused on Scotland at the moment, a few rumblings over the future of devolution in England have been occurring and look likely to increase in volume after this week.

A discussion about localism has barely started – a couple of reports proposing decentralisation and place-based budgets , a few articles and some Twitter chat about the possibility of an England not run from the centre. But old habits die hard and scepticism about the localist agenda, particularly on the left, is never far away. Polly Toynbee’s article today perfectly and articulately encapsulates this stance. It is a view I respect because it comes from the heart and reflects a real desire to overcome the poor life chances that exist for too many in our society. But it is a view I feel we need to challenge as it goes to the heart of how we as progressives get things done, and what we as a party should do with power once we gain office.

The argument has several strands, each of which raise genuine concerns but which collectively amount to a failure of imagination and an inability to envisage a different future. If they are allowed to go unanswered there is a danger they will constrain our ability as a party to express a vision that is relevant, exciting and radical.

First, and most importantly for Labour, the question is posed: ‘Wouldn’t localism increase inequality?’ This charge does not recognise the correlation between our current highly centralised state and highly unequal society, nor the international evidence of more devolved national systems correlating with more equality, or even the postcode lotteries that exist despite our dominant one-size-fits-all approach to public services. Poverty, inequality and poor life chances are highly complex, interwoven issues which require sophisticated not simplistic responses. The Whitehall machine is a blunt instrument. The income transfers relied upon by a Labour government committed to ending child poverty can be undone swiftly by a determined Tory-led government. High levels of spending on public services cannot survive a financial crash and global recession. So giving local areas the levers to create growth, the ability to invest in people’s capacity to take advantage of new opportunities and rebalancing our skewed national economy are all routes to a more sustainable strategy to overcome inequality we should take seriously.

Then poor performance in councils is held up as a reason not to localise: ‘What about Tower Hamlets?’ sums up the refrain. But failures of governance are just that – failures. There is no excuse for them and they must be tackled head-on. That they have happened within a highly centralised system is a nuance too far for this narrow view. So centralisers would retain a system of governance that weakens local government, asks councils to be no more than managerial arms of a Whitehall super-state, and forces them to prioritise the administrative demands of a top-heavy governance hierarchy. Then the centre blames councils for being weak, overly bureaucratic and detached from communities. And the circular argument becomes self-fulfilling: each subsequent shortcoming in local government adds weight to the argument not to devolve, while failures at the centre – IT systems disasters, the work programme, benefit over-payments and clawbacks– never seem to dent the viability of a centralised state.

Failures of governance locally are seen as systemic rather than isolated, while failures of governance at the centre are isolated not systemic. And the status quo holds.

But in recent years there have grown challenges to the centralised modus operandi of the left – while in opposition nationally, where Labour is in power locally they have been finding new ways of putting our values into practice despite financial constraints. The creativity coming from Labour local government has been recognised within the wider Labour movement and informed a good amount of thinking as part of Labour’s policy review.

But this seems to only take us so far before the question is asked: What about Tory councils? According to this view, while Labour councils may well be innovating and delivering for their residents, but as long as some areas elect Conservative councils why would Labour nationally cede hard-won power to them? Yet the case for localism (the ‘how’) does not have to detract from nationally determined strategic outcomes (the ‘what’) – the Local Government Innovation Taskforce set out how this could work when Labour is in government. Empowering local areas with real decision-making capability can create more space for effective local leadership to articulate and fulfil compelling visions for local communities. This can only enliven local democracy, encourage more participation and higher turnouts to create a virtuous circle whereby local electoral success requires broader mandates and support built across the community. This will create more, not fewer, opportunities for Labour locally.

So as many of us in England hold our breath for a ‘No’ vote on Thursday, whatever the outcome, on the other side lies uncharted constitutional territory. There is an opportunity now to build a statecraft which offers greater legitimacy for people and that is capable of responding to the messy complexity of the challenges our country faces. Let’s try to imagine a future not bound by preconceptions and tired methods but one that genuinely opens up to new possibilities – of bringing power closer to people and empowering them to shape their own destinies.

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Jessica Studdert is political adviser to the LGA Labour Group. She tweets @jesstud

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Comments: 5...

  1. On September 16, 2014 at 8:30 pm Andy responded with... #

    Will your version of localism allow more Rotherham’s to happen or stop more Rotherham’s from happening?

    • On September 18, 2014 at 10:52 am Englishoak responded with... #

      More. it isn’t about the people, it’s about Labour’s power now they face losing their Scottish MPs to rule over England. They’re pooping themselves and so they should be – There is NO ENGLISH LABOUR PARTY !!!

  2. On September 16, 2014 at 8:33 pm Anthony Sperryn responded with... #

    Polly is quite right. British industry has been stripped. Economically, Britain revolves round the City of London and the City is gripped by globalisation. The regions are minor players. Moreover, both national and local government, from HM Treasury down, are woefully unsophisticated in matters of financial awareness and competence (just say the word “Iceland” to prove the point, and the occurrence of the financial crisis of 2008 is also a consequence of brainlessness). Incidentally, this factor arises from the desperate status of mathematics in people’s consciousness (as, perhaps, opposed to facility with computers).

    When it comes to work (people actually doing things), so much has been outsourced overseas and so much of what we use (manufactures, food) is imported, that the whole country is living on borrowed money. When it comes to top, and even middle, jobs, business (it’s no longer very British) cries out to be allowed to import executives. If that is the case nationally, what hope have the regions of standing on their own feet?

    It is easier said than done to pull the country, and the regions, up by their bootstraps. No. It needs a concerted effort by everyone, starting with the British government (and, possibly, some vociferous social media campaigns), to make Britain great again and it will take 15-20 years to do it.

    It can be done. People should read Ha Joon Chang and his story of what South Korea did. A dose of protectionism and no nonsense. We have a serious crisis on our hands.

    If we’re clever, we can bring the European Union in. It is a by-product of neoliberalism and corruption that some of the countries in it are in a debt trap, but that can be sorted out, with a big line being drawn on the past. If they can get rid of their politicians who don’t put people first and we can find a few social democrats who think in terms of a new collaborative capitalism, it should be possible to move our economies forward in a less exploitative and environmentally damaging way.

    What people should be putting their minds to is what specific pieces of legislation are required to change what we’ve got. It’s not going to get anyone anywhere to write elegant essays about the regions. Change has to be done in a concrete way, step-by-step and practically, not philosophically.

    We can start with beefing up HMRC and changing international tax treaties so as to stop tax evasion. If Britain is a sovereign nation, It can give notice and change things. It could absolutely refuse to take any part in further negotiation on TTIP. All this privatising of the NHS must stop, because it is degrading the sense of community of the British people. That means reversing the coalition’s legislation. Strict legislation could be introduced to stop foreigners parking their money in houses in London they don’t live in.

    This comment is now long enough, so I’ll stop there

  3. On September 16, 2014 at 9:26 pm nana responded with... #

    since the labour party has been controlled by the progressives it has totally ignored anybody outside of the westminster bubble.the ‘there there’ attitude ‘we know what’s best’.but okay to parachute a ‘london born’.party robot, who have’nt done a decent days work in their lives,to a ‘safe’ labour seat.they used to weigh labour votes in the northern heartlands,now they are counted.
    and then there is rotherham.how many more councils are failing the Safeguarding Of Children?
    and who picked wright to be the candidate for pcc in the first place?

  4. On September 18, 2014 at 10:49 am Englishoak responded with... #

    Democracy shouldn’t be about what is best for Labour, but England as a nation. We need an English Parliament first and then we in England will decide what powers need further devolving locally. These matters should be decided by those of us England – all of us – without interference from Scottish, Welsh and NIrish MPs.
    Federalism will come eventually, but will the politicians be reactive, or proactive is the real question. History shows us that governments don’t do what is best for the people or nations until they are threatened. Must we really demand complete independence for England before the British government stops taking us for granted and defecating on us from their great height?
    ENGLISH PARLIAMENT NOW AND EQUAL DEVOLUTION FOR ALL THE NATIONS OF THE UK

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