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July 16, 2008

Dark-ages Democracy

Writing in the Guardian on Friday Simon Jenkins is not impressed with the new empowerment White Paper ‘A Soviet municipality under Lenin would have been treated less patronisingly. This is dark-ages democracy and, for those of us who have laboured in the localist vineyard, depressing.’

Simon Jenkins, The Guardian

Hazel Blears, the secretary of state for “communities”, yesterday published a white paper containing an astonishing proposal. To make local electors vote, they should be entered for a “prize draw” to win, say, an iPod or shopping voucher. Instead of the incentive of real power, they should have an incentive of greed. They may not vote because the vote is democratically barren, but they might at least be bribed to do so. Welcome the age of heroic cynicism.

Nobody can take this government’s localist pledges seriously until it does so itself. Consider two villages, both the size of an average British parish. One is in central France. It chooses its own mayor, known by name to everyone. Its commune is a one-stop shop, caring for the mairie, primary school, church, market and square, planning development and even administering a small welfare fund. The commune levies a local tax to pay for these things.

A small municipality in Sweden runs the same services under an elected council, but it also runs its doctors’ clinic and its housing allocations. This is covered by a proportion of a locally determined income tax, “redistributed” to ensure a degree of service equalisation between rich and poor areas.

Blears and her boss, Gordon Brown, would never tolerate such permissive localism. They genuinely believe that Britons are not able to run their own affairs, are indeed indolent, incompetent and probably venal. Last year Blears announced a series of “experimental pilots” whereby parishes and urban neighbourhoods would be donated tiny pots of money, just to see how they chose to spend them. They would not be allowed to raise them from taxes.

Now we have more gesture localism. Blears’s latest white paper was so meagre it hardly merited a report in the press. It is full of quotes from Aristotle, Milton and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and is called Communities in Control – a title as ironic as its predecessor from Ruth Kelly, Strong and Prosperous Communities (2006), not to mention John Prescott’s In Touch With the People. Like the concept of a state secretary “for communities”, Whitehall has no sense of self-ridicule.

The white paper, presaging legislation, contains the usual dribble of largesse. Apart from prize draws, there are measures to make it easier for municipalities to choose elected mayors. Communities, undefined, are to be allowed to petition for local debates and demand meetings. Neighbourhoods might have more access to small “kitties” for traffic-calming and play areas, donated from above and prescribed as between £5,000 and £2.5m. A Soviet municipality under Lenin would have been treated less patronisingly.

This is dark-ages democracy and, for those who have laboured in the localist vineyard, depressing. Blears has experience of local government and, like many who have risen to higher things, clearly takes a dim view of its participants. Already the schools minister, Lord Adonis, has all but centralised primary and secondary education, depriving communities of their most cohering institutions and crushing teachers with bureaucracy.

Occasional suggestions that “local people” might regain some control over their health service, as in Scandinavia, and over the police and local order, as in America, have vanished into the Whitehall sands. A battle is said to be taking place over re-establishing elected watch committees, but since these will be separate from local councils they will be subject to central control and “producer capture” by the police.

With planning “nationalised” under the 2004 and 2008 acts, the absence of schools, health, and law and order strips the heart from any concept of local democracy, and Blears knows it. Democracy cannot be built on bin bags and parking tickets.

Speaking recently to parish councillors – still the most numerous body of elected people in Britain – Blears said she was “a firm believer in devolution to the local level” and wanted to give parishes “new flexibilities and powers”. She just does not mean it, any more than the authors of identical speeches and identical white papers before her.

Indeed, last week she openly questioned if local democrats were capable of accepting more power. She brutally stated, via Public Finance magazine: “Are you up for this?” The justice minister Michael Wills put it more bluntly in a speech to the Fabian Society last autumn. Localism, he said, “means a reinforcement of inequality in this country”. In other words, the answer to Blears’s question is no.

All experience makes clear that there is no point in pursuing the localist debate if three requirements are not met: that elected bodies run some substantial public services; that they own some institutions; and that they raise some discretionary taxes. The franchise must bite. Without such bite, all democracy is play-acting and all devolution empty paternalism.

Blears and her colleagues believe that people will not accept any diversity in standards that might result from local taxing powers. But they have allowed such power to Scotland and the mayor in London. Nor does any other country in Europe find this a problem. The concept of equalising locally raised revenue between rich and poor areas is familiar everywhere – as Blears knows well – and was explicit in Britain before rate-capping.

Rich people already purchase private schools, doctors, security and transport. Why should they not be free to decide on their own public services? The only proviso is that the local taxes be subject to redistribution, as are private incomes. This would be easier if such taxes include an income element. But it is not postcode lotteries that ministers fear. What they fear is a loss of control.

Britain’s local democratic deficit is the starkest variance between its politics and that of other western states. Under Margaret Thatcher, who began the march to centralisation, the path was deliberate. “I must take more power to the centre,” she said, “to stop socialism.” Under Tony Blair and Brown the march has been more sinister because denied.

British people still regard their local council as their first port of call for public services: by two to one, compared with central government (according to Mori). Yet these councils are, to the centre, mere agencies. Their elected representatives are superfluous as conduits of accountability, and their voters not to be trusted with policy, taxes or priorities.

Empowerment is empty without accountability, and accountability is empty without fiscal bite. There is no communal governance in Britain at present and no intention, on the part of either big party, to introduce it.

To the government, Britons are considered incompetent to shoulder the democratic responsibilities considered normal elsewhere. Ask why, and ministers all give the same reply: “But have you actually met any councillors? They are useless.” Were it true, which it is not, they do not ask what has made them so.

Blears on local government is like a 19th-century aristocrat on extending the franchise. The peasants are never quite ready for it. But at least in the 19th century Britain was progressing towards democracy. In the 20th it is moving in the opposite direction.