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