The Labour movement column
By Anthony Painter / @anthonypainter
Let’s be honest. There is much that is sensible and welcome in David Cameron’s contribution to the reform debate in yesterday’s Guardian. It is a feature of his leadership style that he jumps on every passing bandwagon. He often seems to land in the front cabin. So we find ourselves responding.
In proposing a more active local democracy, in suggesting some practical – though still insufficient – reforms to the executive-parliament relationship and in some proposals for greater transparency, his arguments have merit. Having written on my blog on Sunday that PR systems become more about elite bargaining than creating a more direct voter-representative relationship, I can hardly disagree when he says:
“Proportional representation takes power away from the man and woman in the street and hands it to political elites.”
It should be said that this is not an argument against all electoral reform. The Alternative Vote seems to be a system that would improve democratic engagement and reduce the power of the political classes. But I do share a concern that PR could exacerbate the democratic gulf that has opened up if it’s not properly thought through.
Mr Cameron’s piece is headlined: “We need a massive, radical redistribution of power.” How does it measure up to such grandiose claims? Actually, what he’s proposing is a redistribution of power. It’s just that power will more often be re-distributed to those with rather than without. It is, in many ways, a charter for insiders against outsiders.
Let’s take two examples:
Mr Cameron proposes to remove national planning targets and Regional Development Agencies altogether. He would allow local councils to determine how many new houses are built in their area. It sounds good: localism in action. But the simple fact is that the number of households is expanding and if there is not sufficient accommodation then rents and house prices will rise considerably. Who benefits? Well, it’s those who currently own property. It redistributes from those without to those with.
Devolve power to the lowest possible level. By all means local authorities should have control over design standards, townscape, where new property is built and the facilities that need to go along with that. What they cannot do is refuse to build in sufficient quantum to enable outsiders – those who do not own property – to afford a house either to rent or buy. Remember, local bureaucracies can be just as inefficient or ineffective as central ones and they are more prone to capture by insider interests.
Now let’s take a look at his proposals for ‘parent power.’ Again, it sounds fine in practice – of course parents should have a say over the schools that their children attend. But get it wrong and you’ve got a classic insider-outsider conflict yet again. Cameron’s proposals are on the wrong side of that line. Parents as insiders can capture an institution and gear it to their interests over the interests of the local community – many of whom are outsiders. Even with legal constraints there are distribution issues both between the school and the local community and within the school itself. A parental voice alongside that of the local community and professionals is welcome. Parental control is not. There are not sufficient safeguards in what Mr Cameron is offering to militate against this.
In the United States, the charter school initiative has shown some startling results (though not without controversy.) School management organisations such as Green Dot, KIPP, and the Harlem Children’s Zone have, in a variety of ways, radically improved success in some of the most trying school districts. They have done it through innovation and enabling teaching staff to do what they do best.
These examples show that redistribution needs to be about opportunity and outcomes, not just voice. If you don’t look at all three things together then it can go terribly wrong. There is a strong suspicion that will be the case with much of what David Cameron is proposing. Stephan Shakespeare reminds us of Mr Cameron’s ‘strong interest in opinion polls.’ That much is clear in his reform programme. It has the feel of a hastily assembled bunch of crowd-pleasing ideas, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s something for everyone – myself included.
Changing Britain – making it a fairer, greener, safer place with more opportunity in his own formulation – will require a much more profound understanding of the interaction of social, political, economic and environmental change than any set of opinion polls can offer. The change that we are crying out for needs greater and more subtle thinking than the Leader of the Opposition has displayed thus far. The suspicion must be that it’s beyond him. Nowhere are his shortcomings more evident than in his ridiculous assertion that the Lisbon Treaty constitutes a massive shift of power to the EU. Nowhere does he justify this. He just keeps on asserting it.
When he comes to pull the lever of influence on, say, environmental policy, he will find it strangely detached. His goals sound fine – they are progressive goals after all. However, it is in the means where things collapse. You don’t achieve progressive ends with conservative means. You achieve conservative ones.
Should he become PM, his policies suggest a Britain that is less fair, less green, and with less opportunity other than for the lucky few. Should he get to step off the bandwagon to initiate a political shake-up, it may not feel that way to most. It could well have the feel of a shake-down.