Can Labour learn to love localism?

New combined authorities and compulsory voting in local elections could hold the key to a Labour love affair with localism

Can Labour learn to love localism? The question is more pressing than it might seem. Ed Miliband’s recent speeches have hymned the importance of devolving power to town halls. His shadow communities secretary Hilary Benn has hinted at a “new deal” for England’s cities. The localism debate seems likely to form part of the party’s policy review and the discussion that follows will raise challenging questions about its statecraft.

The Labour movement holds a deep belief in the power of centralised planning to deliver social justice. The problem is that, after a decade of targets, reforms and scars on ministerial backs, it is hard to argue that centrally-driven reform can deliver the goods. Quite apart from the fact that Blair tested the tools of Whitehall control to destruction, the once-glittering prizes of Westminster power are starting to look tarnished.

The high centralism of the Labour years improved many areas of public service but came at a high price. Targets warped professional behaviour and got in the way of joining up local services around the needs of troubled families and elderly patients. The machinery of central control became deeply inefficient; it cost one county council £135m of overhead to deliver £176m of economic development funding.

Perhaps more importantly, the institutions of central control are currently taking a battering from which they may find it hard to recover. After the expenses scandal only 14% of the public trusts national politicians to tell the truth, while just 24% of us approve of the current system of governing Britain. Meanwhile, the debate over independence north of the border is bringing English nationalism back to the fore. A remarkable 59% of us do not trust the UK government to work in England’s best long term interests.

English parliaments do not do the job – an anti-political nation is hardly likely to support a new institution for which there is scant historical precedent. But a transformed local government provides the starting point for a response to the West Lothian question. Councils still enjoy high levels of public trust, they are generally acknowledged to be efficient and they bring power closer to the citizen in a more authentic way than any new institution could manage.

Over the past year, my organisation has convened a commission of experts from local government and beyond to set out a road map for English localism. Our Localist Manifesto sets out three steps to reform.

Step one is a devolution bill. This would grant local authorities the power to: commission criminal justice services such as courts, prisons and probation services; administer the benefits systems by breaking up job centre plus; and, take decisions over a big chunk of the skills budget. The bill would also contain a new right to bid, allowing councils to make the case for more devolution from Whitehall.

Step two is the creation of new combined authorities for England’s cities and shires. These would effectively be the GLA without Boris. They are necessary because many council services need to be run at a larger scale to be efficient and effective; it is hard to imagine skills being commissioned separately by each of the 10 Greater Manchester authorities. Councils also have an increasing role in promoting economic growth through managing investment funds and the planning system. These functions are best exercised across cities and counties.

Finally, we argue for compulsory voting in local elections. This is a way to solve the localist’s dilemma: councils complain that nobody votes for them because they have no power, but Whitehall refuses to pass down more power because councils are not fully accountable. Compulsory voting would transform the practice of local politics, forcing parties to appeal to a much wider range of voters. Including a ‘none of the above’ box on the ballot paper would give voters a much more powerful way to register a protest than the current system does.

These recommendations are not as radical as they may at first seem. The UK is arguably the second most centralised country in the rich world, so a healthy dose of localism would simply bring us into line with the rest of northern Europe. Nobody accuses Germany of having a weak or unfair system of government, despite its strong local and regional institutions.

To embrace our recommendations, Labour has to rediscover its tradition of democratic republicanism – worrying a little less about equality and a lot more about political citizenship. The point is to give local people control of the levers of power and the capability to pull those levers. Let them have more scope to decide for themselves how they are governed. Most of them will choose social justice, most of the time.

Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network thinktank

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