Local democracy can promote the values on which One Nation depends

November 12, 2012 1:00 pm

By Richard Grayson

In creating ‘One Nation’, the goals of policymakers and politicians should be to secure greater social cohesion and greater social mobility. Both involve creating a more equal society, something which the current government certainly will not articulate, and probably does not understand.  Traditionally, the left has relied on a powerful central state to deliver these goals, and in many areas of policy it should continue to do so, such as macroeconomics, benefits, fiscal policy, and in setting the national standards which the public demands.

But the central state has its limits and what has never been properly tried in the UK, at least not since the days of Joseph Chamberlain’s ‘municipal socialism’, is powerful local government taking the lead in the provision and regulation of public services. Meanwhile, under the guise of the accountability and choice agendas, public services have been fragmented through academies and free schools, and the marketisation of healthcare.

Powerful local democracy, and I stress local democracy rather than localism, offers an alternative to both the central state and markets. Why?

The first reason is that local democracy links political power to tax raising powers. Local councils which make decisions over a range of issues can present real choices to the electorate, engaging them fully in the political process. At present, local councils have some powers of scrutiny on matters such as the closure of local hospital facilities, they are not able to offer alternatives, because they do not have the power to respond to public demand by saying if you want X it will cost Y, or mean cuts to Z and then offering a choice through the ballot box and boosting cohesion through real involvement in crucial local decisions.

This leads on to the question of accountability. At present, the only elected people who have even a marginal role in local health services are local councillors and all they can do is scrutinise. This means that the people who really make the decisions in the health service are only accountable in so far as councillors can assess whether or not they have followed the established procedures of the NHS. Nobody is able to alter the decision made by health bureaucrats, unless they have not followed procedures.  Only local democracy can bring about that kind of accountability in local services. The current system cannot, nor can choices made by individuals to seek services elsewhere – a choice that is usually only available to those who can afford it.

Local democracy also reflects the concerns that people have in their day-to-day lives. Most people find it difficult to engage with strategic questions over the future of healthcare or education in the country as a whole, and find it hard to see how they can make their voice heard and have an influence, even where they do have a vote. In contrast, they do care about local issues, and can begin to see how they could affect the position in their community. But that concern has its limits and in general they do not wish to be heavily involved in the running of schools or hospitals. Most people wish to pay their taxes for good local services, and indicate through the ballot box how those resources should be used, every few years.   Local democracy allows that kind of engagement.

The final reason for promoting local democracy is that it can encourage greater equality through higher levels of investment in public services. When taxes are raised and spent remotely, and people cannot see the immediate benefits for their local community which accrue from the taxes they pay, it is all too easy for certain newspapers to focus on scapegoats such as benefits scroungers, and this has contributed towards people being unwilling to spend more on public services. However, and there is evidence for this from the very decentralised Danish health service, when people can see that their higher taxes will be spent on better local services for all they are far more willing to contribute.

Greater local democracy might seem at odds with One Nation politics. We certainly need to think about whether the current structures are the right ones – boundaries might well need to be withdrawn, and I’d like to see more elected mayors and local referenda.  But overall, not only does local democracy offer the potential to encourage innovation and diversity, it also has the potential to strengthen cohesion mobility and equality, through engaging citizens in major decisions which affect them, in a way that is essential to One Nation politics, and in ways that the central state has failed to do.

Prof Richard Grayson was Liberal Democrat Director of Policy in 1999-2004 and is a Vice-Chair of Liberal Left

This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

  • http://www.facebook.com/Dan.Filson Daniel Filson

    Who can argue being against local democracy? The problems begin when local democracy adopts Nimbyism and does not do what central government wants it to do, like build homes (or, with this government, not build homes for the poor). It’s like being against sin or being in favour of being kind to children and animals. The reality is that government, and the Tories are not the sole guilty party, sometimes likes to shift responsibility to local government without shifting the necessary resources. Indeed the entire revenue support grant system seems to operate on the basis of devolving responsibility without power (or finance). Any idea, by the way, that Joe Chamberlain operated municipal socialism is seriously misguided

  • http://www.facebook.com/dan.platt.7921 Dan Platt

    One way to set this off would be, as described in the full text of this essay (http://empiricalmag.blogspot.com/2012/12/january-excerpt-democracy-by-gar.html), for the central gov’t to provide resources to smaller ones as it shifts those responsibilities down the chain. It fosters cooperation from both sides.

Latest

  • News Woolf and May should “meet survivors groups” over Brittan links, say Labour

    Woolf and May should “meet survivors groups” over Brittan links, say Labour

    Labour have spoken out about complaints that Fiona Woolf QC, head of the public inquiry into historical sex abuse, has links with Leon Brittan. Brittan was the home secretary at the time when the dossier about alleged pedophiles went missing. And Woolf, who is also Lord Mayor of London, admitted yesterday that since 2008 she had dinner with Brittan and his family on five separate occasions but she has said she has “no close association” with him. A number of Labour MPs […]

    Read more →
  • Comment PMQs review: Miliband lands punch on NHS as leaders go through the motions

    PMQs review: Miliband lands punch on NHS as leaders go through the motions

    Here we are again. Another week, another Wednesday, and another wrangle between Cameron and Miliband about the NHS. This is getting a bit old. Cameron attempted to get Miliband on the back foot – he kicked off PMQs by posing questions to the Labour leader about the Welsh NHS. Rather predictably, the rest of PMQs descended into the two party leaders arguing about who can be more trusted with the NHS. But, there was something a little more sinister about […]

    Read more →
  • Comment There is no such thing as a safe seat any more

    There is no such thing as a safe seat any more

    A couple of weeks ago saw the UK elect for the first time a UKIP MP – Douglas Carswell, with a huge majority of 12,000 votes. UKIP made enormous strides in the safe Labour seat of Heywood & Middleton as well, reducing the Labour majority from 5,971 to 617. This rise in the ‘acceptable’ far right should be a cause of concern not just to the Tories but also to us. It is clear from these results there is no […]

    Read more →
  • Comment We must tackle Ukip’s emotional appeal

    We must tackle Ukip’s emotional appeal

    The result in Heywood and Middleton may have shocked some people, but not all. Some warned this could happen after UKIP took or seriously challenged safe council seats in the north, topped the national vote at the Euros, and polled strongly in Labour areas. Their highest average share of the vote in the 2014 elections came in Labour areas like Rotherham, Mansfield and Hartlepool. We’re told if we campaign on the “issues” people will come back to Labour. This fails […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Young Labour voted against supporting the free education demo, but the debate on tuition fees has been reopened

    Young Labour voted against supporting the free education demo, but the debate on tuition fees has been reopened

    Last night Young Labour voted on whether or not to come out in support of the free education demonstration set to take place on the 19th November. Reports suggest, they voted against the motion. This result could easily be interpreted as another sign that the argument against tuition fees is dead in the water. In reality, it tells us that opposite is true. The very fact that this was a topic for discussion at Young Labour’s national committee, that there […]

    Read more →
7ads6x98y