The idea of localism is back in vogue. Members of the Labour government and Conservative opposition alike are repenting past addiction to centralised control of local services and promising more autonomy for local government. It would be nice to think that the Liberal Democrats, as the party most committed to devolution of power, has been making the running on this as a national issue. Sadly, this is not so.
Recently, I have read two excellent publications that make the case for greater decentralisation of local powers from central to local government. The first is Tristram Hunt’s Building Jerusalem, which charts the rise of Britain’s cities in the Victorian era and highlights the extent to which their success had been dependent on local rather than central initiative. The other is Big Bang Localism by Simon Jenkins, in which the former Times editor argues for a dramatic transfer of control of public services to local government from both the centre and unelected quangos. He believes that this would have the same revitalising effect on our democracy that the 1986 Big Bang had in reviving the City of London as a world financial centre.
As a Liberal Democrat, I can’t help noticing that neither of these authors is part of the Liberal family. Hunt is a former Labour party adviser and Jenkins an independent whose sympathies are most naturally with the Tories. It is hard to think of anyone associated with the Liberal Democrats who has established a reputation as a powerful advocate of localism. Centre Forum , the think tank linked to the Liberal Democrats, has produced no publications on this theme and doesn’t appear to have it as part of its work programme.
This point has been driven home to me by the almost simultaneous publication this summer of the cross-party Local Government Association’s document Closer to people and places and the Liberal Democrats’ own local government policy paper Your Community, Your Choice , which is due to be debated at Brighton in September. The former has all the shortcomings and compromises of a document that has had to be agreed by four political groups (Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Independent). But it carries conviction in making the case for decentralisation of power. It tackles the problems caused by government targets. It calls for increased freedom for local government to go hand-in-hand with an agreed set of national targets to which local authorities will contribute. Local authorities would have to make their own arrangements for target-setting and in certain areas conform to minimum standards. Most importantly, the document exudes a confidence in local government’s ability to deliver improved services and to make itself more responsive and efficient.
By contrast Your Community, Your Choice is perfunctory and diffident, a gentle lollop around a familiar course. Even the party’s local government spokesman Andrew Stunell seemed embarrassed by its inadequacies when he spoke at the recent Local Government Association conference. Although it makes the right noises and gives some positive commitments – 75 per cent of local government spending to be raised through local taxes; primary care trusts to be placed under local democratic control – these proposals are no more radical than those put forward by senior local government figures in the Labour and Conservatives parties. The document is short, lacklustre and uninspiring. It has nothing to say about the target culture that central government has imposed on local councils since Labour took office, it doesn’t propose to restore strategic planning to county councils and most of all fails to make any connection between improved public service and greater local accountability.
Why is it that on a theme that ought to be dear to our hearts the Liberal Democrats have so little to say? I think it is at least in part because we confuse localism with obsessive interest in local elections. We have got better at winning elections under the first-past-the-post system and become embroiled in the day-to-day mechanics of local government. Victory in the battle of ideas has to be organised, but our organisation has outstripped our ideas. We campaign tactically to win votes and seats, but not strategically to win the intellectual argument. As a result some activists will see greater powers for local authorities not as a vital objective for a better society but as handing over control of, say, health commissioning to a mean-spirited Conservative county council. Such considerations blunt our commitment to localism.
Right now, both the other parties are making the right noises about decentralisation. Of course, we have been here before. It is easier for Ruth Kelly to pledge to a conference of councillors, as she did earlier this summer, that Labour have learned from the excessive centralisation of their first two terms than it is to deliver real new powers to local authorities. Likewise, experience suggests that the Conservatives’ pledges in opposition to free local government from central control will be forgotten if they return to power nationally. But there are two clear dangers here for the Liberal Democrats. The first is that our localist clothes will be stolen by the other two parties. The second is that if we fail to campaign hard on this issue now and in the years to come, it will be easier for the other two parties to backslide later.
We need to have intellectual courage to promote liberal solutions. If we believe that local control will lead to better public services and revitalisation of our democracy, we must say so loudly, clearly and consistently. We need to do more than just win the odd local by-election or control of a few more councils. Rather we must shift the centre of gravity of debate so that a ‘big bang’ devolution of power along the lines that Simon Jenkins advocates is seen as a credible answer to popular dissatisfaction with public services. More than that, it must be clearly associated with the Liberal Democrats. In the short term we could do worse than reject the policy paper that is about to be presented to conference and insist that the policy wonks come up with something better.