Cameron’s Conservatives are prepared to trust the Plebetariat!
David Cameron struck a nerve with me today, in his Comment is Free article entitled, “A Radical Power Shift”. The Orwellian usurpation of Tony Benn’s “irreversible shift in wealth and power” byline to one side, which is playing to the recent media fad for “Red Tories”, Cameron comes out in favour of subsidiarity. Cameron wants devolution of power ‘to the people’ but his democratic rhetoric belies a rather obscenely undemocratic core, covered by this notion of plebiscites to create elected mayoralties and control Council spending.
The Tory leader has announced the scrapping of the cap on Council Tax rises – which should ring alarm bells, bearing in mind the behaviour of the last Tory government. Instead, a rise of more than 5% will trigger a ‘referendum’. It’s only subsequent to Cameron’s speech that the details of these things have emerged; in his actual speech, Cameron said,
“We’re going to change that by giving people the power to instigate referendums on local issues – including council tax rises. If there’s a local consensus that a tax increase is unnecessary, people will be able to club together and vote it down. This isn’t the sham “power to the people” of a one-day consultation or a citizens’ jury; it’s real power in the hands of local people.”
So one referendum, on council tax rises. And, for large cities, one referendum whether they want it or not, on whether or not to institute an elected mayorship. Because all the others have been shining success stories, since Labour enacted legislation to let towns and cities choose to have elected mayors if they wanted. Probably more intrinsic to the whole process are the remarks by Caroline Spelman, shadow spokewoman for local government (and evidently another version of Hazel Blears):
“Back in 1979 the whole landscape of local government was very different.
“You quite often hear commentators describe a problem of what they called ‘loony Left’ councils.
“That is not the situation we face today. The landscape has changed. Conservatives actually control three times as many councils as our opponents put together – and I think this is the time to actually trust in local democracy and return power to the local level.”
So basically the Conservatives have announced this transfer of power because they control the local councils. If their political opponents controlled the local councils, it would be a bad idea. God forbid giving the Left any political power; 150 Acts of Parliament centralising virtually every power you can think of saw to that. But now that the local councils have turned Tory, it’s a fine idea. I’ve been accused recently of being sectarian as regard the Tory positions on liberties…this sort of thing is precisely why.
The media, of course, have done their job of regurgitating what was said, and finding packing peanuts such as comments by Labour and the Lib-Dems to stuff into the ‘story’ rather than offering any sort of intelligent critique. Labour are on record as saying, “Well, we’ve done this already” and the Lib-Dems as saying, “The Tories are doing this because it suits them now, hypocrites.” Nevertheless, the central idea of the Conservatives standing up for decentralisation, however laughable, is now ‘out there’, to be repeated ad nauseam.
What I’ll be intrigued to see is, will Cameron actually go beyond Labour and return to councils powers over social housing? The state of local Labour Parties, with some exceptions, is frankly frightening. There is a disconnection between Labour members young and old, not to mention the mass desertions from the Party. The capitulation of large swathes of the Labour Party to the use of ‘consultants’ and to the logic of privatisation of council services is also an ongoing bugbear.
If Cameron’s commentary is more than just rhetoric and actually is ridiculously opportunistic, handing over power because he doesn’t fear what his own party will do with it, what should our response be? Labour in the 1980s scored major victories for the Left by refusing to accede to the demands of central government and borrowing money to meet needs, rather than ignoring needs to meet spending requirements. This continues to be the argument of some parts of the Left and, I believe, it is a good one.
It is an argument we should employ today. The question is, will we be advancing the argument in the context of Labour, again, knowing full well what our leadership will do if we actually gain control of a council, or should the Convention of the Left be seeking to co-ordinate Labour activists and non-Labour activists to campaign on behalf of parties that may not be their own? By which I mean, should the Convention of the Left become a more accountable, better organised Socialist Alliance for the next local government elections?
By campaigning in such a way, we acknowledge that a) it does matter if a socialist gets elected, regardless of what Party they are from, rather than a reactionary and b) we leave ourselves more options in the event of a renewed witch hunt by the party machine, or by new attacks on the LRC by the second and third generations of New Labour. The problem with this is, of course, that such an approach almost invites a new witch hunt, since it would mean campaigning behind candidates who may or may not be standing against Labour.
Campaigning within Labour is still viable, but, of course, the problem here is that the reach of the Labour Left is curtailed by a general collapse in political activism, weakening the networks by which we traditionally fought back against the bureaucracy. Either way, is anyone else feeling that frisson of excitement that gripped me when I read this notion of Cameron’s, or its slightly more radical version from New Labour?