Home > Terrible Tories > Localism and blind faith

Localism and blind faith

Matthew Taylor is an intelligent liberal commentator, so I was interested in what he might have to say about the virtues of ‘localism’.

And in pointing out what’s wrong with the centralizing tendencies under New Labour (itself a continuation of Thatcherite and Majorite doctrine) he talks good sense. 

 In particular, I like his point that:

 The messages sent by the centre (especially if there are lots of them) are very different to the messages eventually heard at the front line.’

This reflects my own earlier contentions, around the Welfare Reform bill, that the intentions of that bill might actually have been good ones, at least in a naive communitarian sense, but that by the time it has all fed through into implementation all of the good intentions will have been lost at the expense of a bureaucratic hounding of the poor.

Matthew is less good, though, on what to do about this over-centralizing tendency in UK governance.

He has, it seems, been seduced by the superficial attractions of the Conservatives’ ‘localism’ agenda, to the extent that, in the absence of Labour willingness to confront the problem, and sclerosis within Whitehall:

 [I]t may have to be a different administration that makes the shift.

Sorry.  That’s utter, utter bollox, however briefly set out.

In offering up this bollox, it has to be said, Matthew’s not alone.  Many public policy wonks have been taken in, including the New Local Government Network, who, with someone as good a natural leftie as Anna Turley to guide them (see para. 54) really should know better; perhaps they are unable or unwilling to judge what’s actually going on at the front-line.

So let’s just be very clear about what the Conservative localism agenda is all about.  Beneath the veneer of ‘power to the people’, the Conservative localism agenda is all about creating an environment for massive cuts in public service delivery.  Nothing more, nothing less.

Dave has so ably shown that the Conservatives’ sudden new enthusiasm for co-ops is nothing more than a smokescreen for service reductions and the start of a race to the competitive bottom.

I have  (perhaps less ably) provided ample evidence that Cameron’s eagerness to sign off ‘General Powers of Competence’ legislation ‘within weeks’ of coming into government, simply provides local authorities with absolute freedom to do what they want, and creates  a back door way of enabling them to do as little as they can now get away with, and then outsource the rest in a Ridley-ite orgasm of contracting skeleton services to the lowest bidder; this will generally be the bidder most able and willing to exploit a reduced number of workers most effectively. 

We know what will happen, because under the most ideologically driven Conservative councils, it’s already happening.  

Kate Belgrave has been reporting for two years on what’s been happing in Barnet, even before it gained its EasyCouncil title.   Lord Hanningfield, leader of Essex county council until thrown out of office for alleged theft, has already driven through a massive sale of every service under the Essex sun to IBM, and Lancashire County Council is embarking on the same scheme, without even bothering to tell either councillors or unions what they’re up to, leaving it the guys at Computer Weekly to bring us the news of a contract notice worth £1.9 billion for all IT-related services, including services there’s very little IT involved, not just in their own council but all the second tier councils in their area as well. 

How is that localism, exactly?

No wonder Conservative Central Office, in a move not entirely compatible with the supposed spirit of localism, has already instructed from on high council tax freezes not for one but for two years, irrespective of local conditions, local needs, local people, local jobs. 

Localism, my arse.

 The Tory agenda is clear, and I’m just a bit surprised at how people are being taken in by the rhetoric, though at least Dan Drillsa-Milgrom gets it right.

(Hat tip to Anthony Painter via twitter for the link to Matthew’s post.)

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Categories: Terrible Tories
  1. February 25, 2010 at 8:35 pm

    The bit which made me chuckle was when Taylor wrote that “It is up to the localists to ‘prove’ that devolving power would improve outcomes. But given its complexity and the confounding variables this is an impossible case to make.”

    You are spot on about the problems with the Tories here, and Taylor is curiously uncritical of Tory plan to devolve the power to cut budgets. But New Localism Bollocks is a cross-party sport. I can send you the paper that I did with a couple of others for the Institute of Local Government Studies about the limitations of new localism as a means of empowerment if you’d be interested / are having difficulty sleeping and want something to help you nod off.

  2. February 25, 2010 at 8:45 pm

    A cohesive narrative is beginning to emerge behind the various angles of Tory attack – and almost none of it is directly attributable to the Tory frontbench team. It’s coming from leading lights in Thatcher and Major’s governments and the think tanks they head. We have the New Localism, we have the post-bureaucratic state and, playing to both of these and clearly aimed at marketization when set in that context, is the Tory co-ops idea.

    It’s reassuring that people are seeing through this, that the Tory lead is falling, but where the hell are the unions? Why are there not massive campaigns in workplaces, touring roadshows and such ripping in to Tory policy for the sheer damage it will do to workers’ rights and the exploitation of the workforce in both public and private sector? Why aren’t we hearing about Tory plans for a ‘stealthy’ state, which intervenes only to help bosses?

    That Labour Party thinking runs in a similar is bad enough – but the silence on this subject from mainstream channels is deafening.

  3. paulinlancs
    February 26, 2010 at 9:11 am

    I’d be really interested to see the ILGS study, Dan, if you can send it across. Dave and I have been banging on about this area for a bit but with, as Dave suggests, really no traction at all (to mix metaphors). I’m not entirely sure why people so generally distrustful of Tory intention at other levels/in other areas should appear so naive about the localism bag; perhaps it’s simply poor understanding born of Westminster-dedicated commentary. Any ideas on how to highlight the potential looming meltdown welcome.

    Dave: Why are the unions not involved? Well I suppose the easiest answer is, as above, that in their upper echelons they’ve not grasped the scale of what may hit them, and because the Tories have concealed their plans pretty well. Alongside this though is the simple fact that it would be difficult and look self-defeating to campaign against the Tories when they are not actually in power (and you never know, might not be). This doesn’t mean you’re not right – the unions should be going off at the deep end, though the other problem is that there’s been no supportive squeak from Labour about what’s going on in Essesx or Lancashire or elsewhere, because their top ‘thinkers’ don’t recognise either the reality of what’s happening or the potential for Troy-bashing. It doesn’t help when even fairly sensible blogs but well-read blogs like Left Foot Forward say the Tory Co-op plans look sound. The notion of FFS springs to mind.

  4. Rob
    February 26, 2010 at 11:50 am

    It’s probably worth making absolutely clear that one of the worst things about the Tory plans is that they give otherwise good ideas a bad name by implementing them in the worst conceivable fashion. Local decision-making, ‘post-bureaucracy’ and mutualism are all potentially beneficial ideas if implemented correctly. At worst, they are a rhetorical mask for a project that does not serve its purported aims.

  5. February 26, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    “I’m not entirely sure why people so generally distrustful of Tory intention at other levels/in other areas should appear so naive about the localism bag; perhaps it’s simply poor understanding born of Westminster-dedicated commentary.”

    I think this is the problem – it all sounds kind of plausible if you’re not familiar with the subject.

    It is also particularly appealing to people who spend a lot of time observing the dysfunctionality of central government, and a lot of the Tory stuff is part of the smug neo-liberal consensus which New Labour and the Libs also believe in (particularly around empowering the already empowered).

    Basically, I think it is a symptom of the fact that we’ve got not enough people out at the grassroots feeding in to the discussion, and too many people in one way or another hanging round Westminster.

  6. Barney Stannard
    February 26, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    I’ve been following this forum with some interest, as someone theoretically pro-localism (from a democratic perspective) but with concerns about the practical aspect. Aside from the fact that the Conservatives are evil, and very probably torture poor people, is there any evidence that their smug neo-liberal world-view is really a plot to devastate the public services by implementing localism in the worst conceivable fashion.

    Also: the council tax freeze is outrageous. A freeze on one of the most regressive taxes and will be paid for by by cutting payment on government advertising and consultancy. Outrageous.

  7. February 26, 2010 at 7:49 pm

    Well, I don’t know what you conceive to be the worst possible fashion…but the proposals themselves are my primary text. Naturally these are factored through a series of assumptions – such as the view that allowing plebiscites on council tax are designed to post the question of taxes to voters in such a way as to produce the answer Tories want. These assumptions are contestible, but I don’t think we’re wrong and you asked a fair question.

    Incidentally I don’t think there’s anyone here who would argue for higher council tax but this actually adds to the example I cited above. The Left recognize the regressive nature of council tax and would like the structure of taxation to change – but the implementation of ‘localism’ isn’t offering that option, it is merely offering the binary of lower and higher council tax.

    As evidenced by various Tory boroughs and processes under way, this restriction of council tax is used to gut services, with no interest in the needs of the people living the area, or at least not the people likely to vote Labour. And the Tories have form in this regard.

  8. paulinlancs
    February 27, 2010 at 8:09 am

    Barney: I should have had a bet with myself about who’d raise the issue of what evidnce there is for this. That’s meant as a compliment, because you are right to draw it out. This was a short polemic piece meant to reference back to two more substantial posts around Tory plans for co-ops and for ‘general competence’ legislation.

    Of course the main difficulty of providing evidence of what the Tories will do with ‘localism’ in power is that they’re not in power, so there’s no evidence. Any evidence of their intentions therefore has largely to be based on what they have done in local authorities recently, and when they were last in government (picking up Dave’s point that a lot of this policy is driven from outside the official party structure by people from those days – I have never gone with the ‘these Tories are just evil’ thesis, though of course it is useful as polemic).

    The evidence IS that councils up and down the land are very keen to reduce both the quantity and quuality of the service they provide, and to introduce payments for services were they can. My local blog covers what my set of Tories get up to, and I can take you to plenty of evidence. I think, while it is circumstantial, that it is reasonable to make a link between the two main policy initiatives Dave & I have assessed and make the judgment that the rationale for them is different from the one explictly given. Certainly in the case of the legislation, and the fact that it is not actually needed for the (quite technical reasons) assigned to it, I think my judgement is very reasonable – I invite you to examine that post in depth if you can be arsed.

    From another angle, none of what is proposed is truly about localism. Only 5% of public spending goes through local democratic structures at the moment (I’ll find the evidence link from recent research) if you really want me to. A prospective government serious about devolving power to local level – and this is something I am in favour of IF it is done properly – they would be addressing this, for example. They are not seriously interested in decentralising power AND resources(and nor are New Labour), and as Dave has pointed out everything they set out is set within a set of key assumptions.

    As for your point on Council Tax, yes I know it’s regressive. That wasn’t my point. My point was that Osborne’s policy on 0% directly militates against Cameron’s profession of commitment to localism. Any yes I’d like to see Tory (and some Labour councils) spend less on their PR machines and more on services, but let’s keep that in perspective. the 0% freeze in Lancashire means loss of real services this year – staff in children’s care homes, investment in highways, to name but a couple. That’s a polich choice imposed from the centre, although the Tories in Lancashire would have probably gone for it anyway.

  9. Barney Stannard
    February 27, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    The evidence is that councils behave like that very possibly; but the inference that that is what the Tory central goverment want isn’t particularly strong.

    The 5% figure for public spending to local gov is under Labour.

    Council tax: yes, I got the point. But localism isn’t the only good to be pursued. There are going to have to be compromises between these goods and freezing council tax doesn’t seem a bad one. Agreed there will be loss of services but that’s because the Tories think we need to cut the gov debt, which is a separate issue.

    Dave: “Naturally these are factored through a series of assumptions – such as the view that allowing plebiscites on council tax are designed to post the question of taxes to voters in such a way as to produce the answer Tories want.” Once you have assumed that there really isn’t any need to analyse. Its like me saying I’ve analysed that Michael Schumacher will win this season’s F1, based on the assumption that it will be a Mercedes car that wins. You’ve done most of the work in the assumption.

    I’m pretty sceptical about the Tories or indeed any central government promising to devolve power. If you go into politics its because you have a certain view of the world you want to bring about. In most cases this view will be substantive i.e. more trains, lower taxes, better conditions for swedish gym instructors, rather than formal i.e. maximising democracy. Or, more accurately, the substantive will tend to outweight the formal, in most people. But to dimiss the Tories so strongly is essentially Manichean. And I know it is polemic, but polemic is only a suitable medium for certain situations; you have to be able to back up the polemic with rigorous analysis.

  10. February 27, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Barney, the assumptions may well ‘do most of the work’, but then the assumptions are themselves based on empirical evidence; what Tories have done, what Tories have said they want to do etc. Let’s not pretend that this election is happening in a vacuum, a completely new situation detached from the past of the respective parties.

    One builds assumptions over time and experience; now you can say that the Tories intend to devolve power honourably but the reality is that I haven’t contradicted that view. My argument (and I don’t speak for Paul) is that they haven’t escaped the neo-liberal ideology, and their ideas on what democracy don’t escape the system which hedges that democracy about.

    In most of my articles I have been rigorous in looking at what the Tories are proposing, and how it won’t live up to the rhetoric, and how, conveniently, it serves the interests of a class, or at least an economic sub-group of society. I don’t think this is Manichean – I think it is simply putting Tory proposals in the context of our political system and their own political ideals, beyond the populist rhetoric.

  11. February 27, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    PS: I don’t think cuts in services can in every instance be related to desires to cut the deficit, but I’ll look into this in more depth – on specific Tory spending programmes – before I take it up. Paul will probably have more since he’s been watching West Lancs.

  12. Barney Stannard
    February 27, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    True this is not a vacuum. But the world has changed in the last 14 years.

    If the unit block of analysis is ‘neo-liberalism’ then the analysis will be crude; in concrete terms the phrase isn’t really all that meaningful, unless one looks at the world as a dichotomy with socialism on the other side.

    We don’t really know what this current breed of Tories will do. The recent past was dominated by Thatcher, who was, hopefully and very possibly, an aberration. Thatcher can be modelled as exemplifying two things: (a) free markets; (b) no society. Swallowing Hayek hook and line without any real digestion led to a crude and nasty ideology. It remains to be seen whether Cameron et al follow suit. I have to say I doubt it, and there is certainly no compelling reason to believe they will.

    And, to be honest, I think a lot of your analysis does border on the Manichean. I can’t be bothered to read back and quote examples, but I’m struck by the fact that you support every strike/instance of industrial action, attack every decision that is prima facie against the needs of workers, only mention a Tory policy to attack it etc etc. Sorry to be blunt, but no point tiptoeing.

  13. February 27, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    No indeed there isn’t. But if by Manichean you mean to imply my worldview is binary, that’s simply not true – and this is demonstrated in the way in which I approach party politics in the UK, where everything is really shades of grey rather than light and dark.

    In fairness one might declare that this is dependent upon how they relate to two binary opposites – labour and capital – but I think this is a simplification, and anyone’s views can be simplified thusly, categorised into things they consider right and things they consider wrong. I don’t think this type of meta-categorization qualifies as Manichean, or it’s not what I’ve understood it to mean.

  1. February 27, 2010 at 8:29 am

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