Localism and the left: the need for strong central government.

AuthorParvin, Phil

We share a conviction that the days of big government are over; that centralisation and top-down control have proved a failure. We believe that the time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain today; to recognise that we will only make progress if we help people to come together to make life better. In short, it is our ambition to distribute power and opportunity to people rather than hoarding authority within government. The Coalition Agreement (Cabinet Office, 2010, 7) Any despotism is preferable to local despotism. If we are to be ridden over by authority, if our affairs are to be managed for us at the pleasure of other people, heaven forefend that it should be at that of our nearest neighbours. John Stuart Mill (Mill 1977 [1862]) We are all localists now, or so we are told. The political parties, NGOs across a range of policy areas, and many think tanks from the right, left, and centre of British politics are now broadly unanimous in their support for the idea that the British democratic system needs to be overhauled and that many of the powers currently possessed by central government should be devolved down to local communities.

That support for localism has become widespread among members of Britain's political elite was obvious in the run-up to the 2010 general election in which the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour shared with the likes of UKIP, the British National Party, the English Democrats, and the Greens a vision of politics in which decisions about such things as policing, planning, and the provision of local services should be taken by the people who would most benefit from these decisions, rather than by politicians in Westminster, mandarins in Whitehall, or bureaucrats in Brussels.

Support for localism by the government and other parties can at one level be understood purely in terms of electoral self-interest. It seems to fit the mood of many voters. The MPs' expenses scandal and 'lobbygate' appeared to feed a pre-existing and widespread cynicism among many British voters about their elected representatives, the institutions in which they work, and the democratic mechanisms which legitimate them.

But localism is also a radical response to what many on the left and the right see as a profound political and constitutional problem: that the Westminster Model, and the notion of representative democracy which animates it, has failed (for example Diamond, 2011). Localists fear that political power has become centralised within a closed community of insider groups, expert advisors, and unelected organisations, coordinated by an elite group of professional politicians who are empowered with the ability to govern according to their own consciences and self-interest, rather than the expressed will of those who elected them (Bevir, 2005, 2010; Rhodes, 1996 and 1997). They argue that this approach has, in the wake of successive governments who sought to strengthen the centre at the expense of the local, led to the development of a de facto oligarchy with the strong central state at the centre of a web of influential organisations whose democratic links with the citizen body are minimal or non-existent.

Their alternative requires us to adjust our traditional understanding of the state, to reject the failed Westminster Model, and embrace instead a more deliberative conception of democracy and governance.

The Decentralisation and Localism Bill, published in December, represents the clearest statement yet of the Coalition's plans for wresting control away from experts, politicians, and quangos, and giving it to local people. Specific measures outlined in the Bill include giving local authorities a 'general power of competence', abolishing the current regime of standards oversight and regional planning strategies, and giving local communities the right to take over the running of local services, to take planning decisions, to call for referenda on local issues, and to veto council tax rises.

Taken together with the government's commitments to establishing Free Schools and publicly elected police commissioners and mayors, increasing the involvement of non-state actors in the delivery of public services, encouraging higher levels of civic volunteerism, and widening the scope for front line staff to be involved in decisions concerning the provision of health and social services, the extent of the government's ambition becomes clear: it wants nothing less than to reform British democracy from the ground up by cutting the size of the state and devolving existing state powers down to non-state actors like charities, front line service providers, and volunteers, in order to remove central institutions as much as possible from the day to day lives of British citizens.

Given the widespread disaffection felt toward politics and politicians by many in Britain, reaction to the Bill has been mixed and not a little confused, especially among those on the left (Mulgan, 2008a; Turner, 2010; McCarvill, 2010; Colenutt, 2011). The general feeling on the left seems to be that while some form of localism is a good thing (in that it breaks up those political hierarchies and elites which have traditionally dominated the political system to the detriment of political equality and social justice), the exact form of it stipulated in the Localism Bill is mistaken or problematic. That is to say, the devil is generally taken to be in the detail. The government's localist agenda is, for many, complicated by nebulous commitments to the Big Society, and to a vision of Britain in which local people are 'encouraged' to do the work of trained, professional service providers for free in the wake of drastic cuts in public expenditure. Consequently, it is commonly held that the task for those on the left must be to produce a new, and more socially just, version of localism which retains the central drive toward the decentralisation of power, but which does not rely on the vocabulary of the Big Society for its justification (Mulgan, 2008b).

I suggest that this is a mistake. I argue that the vision of localism currently presented by the majority of those involved in the debate is largely empty of substantive content and that those on the left who have sought to defend some form of localism have succeeded only in providing a vision of politics which under-theorises the role of individual citizens in the democratic process and undermines the traditional leftist commitment to identifying and resolving social and economic injustices. I therefore suggest that, when it comes to localism, the devil is not in the detail but in the broad vision of society and politics it embodies and invokes.

I argue that anyone committed to rectifying the most egregious excesses of the market economy, securing basic freedom and equality for the most vulnerable members of society, defending public services, and ensuring greater levels of representation for the worst-off members of society should reject localism and embrace instead a vision of politics in which policy-making and decision-making power lies primarily with central institutions and elected politicians, and in which local authorities work in partnership with central government to implement decisions made by central government, and not by members of local communities.

It is not possible to discuss all the various problems associated with localism here. In what follows, I focus on two: firstly, the fact that localists have thus far failed to make the intellectual case for localism and, secondly, that in as much as localists present a substantive alternative vision of politics to centralism, this form of politics would exacerbate and entrench inequalities and social injustices rather than resolve them.

The emptiness of localism

The general appeal of localism is rooted in the observation that the 'United Kingdom is one of the most centralised states in the developed world' (Barrow, Greenhalgh, and Lister, 2010, 1) and that, despite the devolution of certain powers to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the introduction of elected Mayors in cities like London, and a range of other initiatives aimed at providing local people with a greater say in the ways in which they are governed, Britain still remains a country in which the citizens are considered merely 'supplicants' by those in Whitehall and Westminster (Boyle, 2009).

Local concerns are ignored by centralised institutions which are too preoccupied with meeting 'targets' and 'efficiencies' to actually respond to the concerns of real people. Local businesses are crushed by centrally-driven regulation and red tape, which - while well-meaning - seems to do little but thwart innovation and disincentivise entrepreneurial spirit. And decisions about such things as planning, health provision, policing, sentencing, the content of school curricula, and teaching are all made by well-intentioned but misguided 'experts' in parliament or the government or elsewhere who claim to know more about the issues which affect the people living in local areas than the people themselves. As a consequence, localists claim, democratic politics has become something that is driven by influential elites, powerful sectional interests, and the narrow concerns of partisan hacks, rather than the needs of real people (Beedham, 2006; Centre for Policy Studies, 2007).

Localism has therefore proven appealing to politicians and activists across the political spectrum. Those on the political right see it as a check on what they perceive to be an inexorable growth in the political power retained by unelected quangos and other non-governmental organisations in particular, and on the growth of the state...

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