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November 4, 2009

Politicians discourage local leadership

In a recent article in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins says that British politicians hate the idea of strong local leadership –  for fear that it dilutes their own power base. He says that in the absence of accountable local leadership,  the police are increasingly being forced into representing community authority

Simon Jenkins

Reaction to the Pilkington deaths was predictable in a nation where social activities are deterred and civic leadership is extinct

The prime minister yesterday announced that “feral Britain” is to be fought with more police and asbos. In an eerie echo of John Major’s dying call for Victorian values, Gordon Brown said the country needed tighter discipline, more parental regulation and a boost to antisocial behaviour orders. After a decade of toughness on the causes of crime, this is the best we can do. It is like trying to bring peace to Afghanistan with more bullets.

Monday’s Leicestershire jury verdict on the Pilkington deaths was typical of British public opinion. It blamed the police and local officials for “contributing” to their tragic end. This was converted by the press into “letting it happen”. Apologies were demanded from the chief of Leicestershire police, who duly gave them. An inquiry was launched by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Asbos are to be strengthened and “50,000 most chaotic families” identified in some giant Domesday survey for compulsory treatment. This is the state in all its splendour. As after the Soham and Croxteth murders or the Doncaster child assaults, government must be seen to do something instant, and preferably to electoral advantage.

There is not another country in the free world where the sole representative of community authority is the chief of police. There is not another country where, whenever some antisocial activity or even family failure takes place, everyone turns to the law. Such is modern Britain, where social policy is reduced to surveillance cameras and databases, where citizens are casually thrown in jail for petty fraud, sex under 16, drug possession and not paying BBC licence fees.

Where is civic leadership in Leicestershire? It is as invisible this week as when Fiona Pilkington was suffering her torment. Her parish councillor would not even reveal his name. Accountable local leaders have all but departed the political landscape in Britain. We have almost no elected mayors, no figureheads to express the regret or anger of town or city – let alone to take curative action. There are only introverted oligarchies. Councillors owe loyalty to party, rather than neighbourhood, and remain largely unknown to their communities.

Instead, in each recent case of high-profile neighbourhood breakdown, local leadership is presented to the world through a uniform. Even teachers and youth workers, former partners in upholding communal discipline, are so hidebound by regulation as to have largely fled. Soon friends and neighbours will also be deterred from social activities considered second nature in any normal community, under the lash of the Criminal Records Bureau and Ofsted. Ministers do nothing about it.

In a rare case when a politician appears over the parapet, it is a Westminster one. Only when Fiona Pilkington wrote to her MP did the police even begin to respond to her plight. But in such cases MPs cannot assume the function of a de facto mayor as they have no executive power. They are mere lobbyists.

British citizens now regard their police as a one-stop shop for rectifying the nuances of antisocial behaviour. The constabulary is saddled not just with law enforcement but with community mediation, counselling, social disruption and family and marital breakdown. This role as social prefect is an intolerable burden.

Meanwhile local democracy is regarded by Westminster politicians and commentators as a joke. Its informal disciplines were dismissed by the home secretary, Alan Johnson, yesterday as those of an implausible golden age. Those disciplines went out with Labour nationalisation, reinforced by the dynamic centralism of Margaret Thatcher’s war on local councils. Macho political science became Westminster political science. Localism was for nerds and conference speechwriters.

In the Pilkingon case, the jury turned not to an accountable executive but to an unreadable 104-page Whitehall document with the title, “Hate Crime: Delivering a Quality Service (Good Practice and Tactical Guidance)”. Among a mass of Blairite drivel it opines that it is “a mark of civilisation” that “the state protects the vulnerable”. That state is central government with local as its agent. Nobody is really responsible.

The public clearly feels impotent. Whatever Gordon Brown may claim, there is no national framework of law, order and regulation that can handle the subtleties of neighbourhood control. Outside the communist world, such centralised discipline has been attempted nowhere but in modern Britain, a relic of some monarchical prerogative rooted in the genes of the ruling class.

In France or Germany or Italy or Spain, the first recourse in the Pilkington case would have been to the mayor or local councillor, someone who knew the parties concerned, and had sufficient local influence to make informal discipline effective. The knock on the door would come from a neighbourhood politician before a policeman.

A symbol of this is that local politicians are recognised in Germany by about 80% of their populations (against less than 20% in Britain). In France there is an elected official for roughly every 100 voters. This must in part explain the often noted community cohesion in these countries, and a far lower propensity to imprison for petty crimes.

British politicians hate the idea of stronger local institutions. Above all, they hate elected mayors or other such leaders who might develop a constituency base that dilutes their own. The conduits of power reflect this preference. An MP of my acquaintance says that he nowadays phones the police with a problem far more often than he phones his council. Sensing this shift in accountability, the Tories are even proposing to elect police chiefs, but not mayors. They sense a democratic vacuum but dare not fill it with real politics.

The government’s big idea for tackling antisocial behaviour, the asbo, was seen as a short cut to petty crime reduction. Yet the crudeness and bureaucracy associated with asbos have led to a halving of the number used in the last four years, and a poor success rate. Like a dozen other gimmicks introduced by this government, they are not real innovations but pretences to appease rightwing newspapers. It is a measure of the intellectual bankruptcy of British democracy that nobody has any real idea what to do next – except press more powers on the police.