After the Tory-led government’s attempts to define localism as being whatever Mr Pickles says it is, you might be forgiven for assuming that the Labour Party, as the party of the people would be the party of devolution. The reality has been however a little mixed.
Devolving power to local authorities was never a massive part of New Labour’s agenda with its emphasis on centrally defined targets and plans. I recall being told by a senior Labour politician that devolution was fine as long as local government was implementing the policies of a Labour Government. There was an understandable belief that councils were bastions of old Labour beliefs and practices. This gave rise to the idea that councils could somehow be bypassed in an attempt to get to the “real” community and that tinkering with the structure of local government might produce more modern leaders.
Before dealing with the difficulties that lie in the way of a fresh start it might be worthwhile to make the case for creativity in local government. One Nation Localism published by the LGA Labour Group is stuffed full of examples of Labour councils finding new and innovative ways of delivering services at a local level. They range from personalised support to get people back to work to integrating children’s services across different agencies, but they share a number of characteristics:
1) They are tailored to local circumstances. They build on local knowledge of geographical circumstances personal relationships and strengths of local communities.
2) They allow for a greater degree of local accountability and control. They help to counteract feelings of helplessness and lack of involvement that many people feel when faced with strictures from central government of whatever political party.
3) For our party it’s about using the talent and creative ability of more than just those in Parliament. It allows local politicians to test out new ideas in a locality and to encourage members to feel they are more than just doorstep fodder.
Given the enormous strength and robustness of localism why then has Labour not yet fully embraced it?
Firstly there is the uncomfortable fact that freedom for Labour councils to implement policies we approve of also means freedom for Tory councils to implement policies we disapprove of. For Labour councils to campaign to provide more libraries in more imaginative ways there would be a corresponding ability for Tory councils to provide less libraries, the argument goes. Time and time again for perfectly understandable reasons the Labour Government would be asked to intervene to stop opposition-controlled councils making decisions that many local people disliked. Rather than central intervention the answer in many cases has to be the election of a Labour council.
I am not suggesting we give up on “Tory” areas but rather it is about supporting those who are fighting locally. There is no getting round the fact that local lemocracy means choices. As a party we have to value local campaigning, not look to central government to shield us. Otherwise we reduce all councillors to being agents of central government rather than representatives of our communities.
Secondly localism for all its strengths flies in the face of a party belief that there should be no barriers to achieving what a Labour government wants to do. That leaving matters to the discretion of local government leaves too much to chance. This is when arguments about “postcode lotteries “are most often deployed.
Yet the opportunity to allow us all a degree of autonomy could genuinely involve more than just councillors. It could lead to new vibrant debates which our party could lead but not dictate. Whether it was new forms of social housing or the development of mutuals as a means of providing care, local priorities could shape services rather than memos from Whitehall. It would also mean that local elections would matter. The electorate would have to choose between competing visions of how their area would develop. I believe inevitably this would lead to higher turnout and participation in the process.
Those who write policy papers for the party of course want to see their ideas adopted. This means too often the argument is couched in terms of what a Labour government will do rather than what local administrations can do. This is a process that whilst in office civil servants inevitably reinforce. Ask a civil servant how a policy can be implemented and he will put forward a convincing case for the Minister to take more power to achieve it. Ask them to consider devolution of budgets and responsibility and there will be a well-argued paper as to why that would be a mistake.
The best way I believe to create a new mood of localism and empowering communities is to have a new constitutional settlement. We need to clearly define spheres of responsibility between local and national government into areas in which each takes the lead whist the other can influence but not prescribe. The previous Labour Government started with such good intent by promising devolution to the regions but we simply got a mayor and assembly for London and more national plans and targets. In Scotland and Wales on the other hand the work across parties had created cross-party agreement on the division of powers. That is exactly what is required now. We will never agree on how local councils should approach their responsibilities but can we not at least agree on the division of powers. The rules of the game need to be in place for a genuine battle for the hearts and minds of the local community.
At the heart of my belief in the importance of localism is a vision of where power needs to lie. Local government is not simply about emptying the bins or repairing the roads. Rather it is about giving a community a future. That can only be done if local leaders are given the opportunity to work with their communities and shape their future together. That is why Westminster and Labour need to let go.
John Merry is a Labour Councillor in Salford.