» localism ¦ What You Can Get Away With

baran_networks(This is the second in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. The first post in the series is here and my original post on the book is here.

Russell uses his chapter on pluralism to discuss two issues for liberalism: the dispersal of power, and the celebration of diversity. While I understand how his historical view of the development of liberalism does link the two, tracing it from the challenge to the power of the Church and liberal support for Nonconformism, I’m going to give both issues separate posts to avoid confusion by conflating them too.

As a liberal principle, pluralism emerges quite naturally from the desire to control the power of the executive I discussed in the last post. If one wants to prevent a single source of power from coming to dominate all, then why not have a series of different powers at different levels? This idea of dispersing power may seem obvious to us now, but was a radical proposition in the time when monarchies were trying to make their power absolute.

The principle of consent is also important in developing a liberal pluralism, rather than a devolved feudalism. It is possible to separate power and still retain an absolutism, when that power is arranged by a strict territoriality and hierarchy. Each power could be absolute in it’s own small realm, but then subservient in the realm above it. The principle of consent required to create legitimate authority, however, means that all power in any realm relies on the participation of the people within it. The liberal vision of pluralism is not one single power dividing itself up and creating order on the way down, but a mass of power that begins with the people creating the power structures they wish from the ground up.

For me, this is a vital issue for British liberalism and one where we’ve dropped the ball and not paid it much attention. Our conception of power is that it belongs to the people and is consensually given to the state in order to achieve good things on behalf of everyone. However, the British state is still constructed on the basis that all power resides in the centre, and while it can be devolved to lesser bodies, they still remain under its control. If there’s one thing seven years in local government has taught me it’s that a local council is not regarded as a body created by the people of an area, but as an arm of the centralised state, expected to do what its told, with the only freedom being in areas where the Government can’t be bothered to act itself. ‘Localism’ is merely the ability to decided locally just how much you want to agree with the latest directive from DCLG, not the power to say no to diktats from the centre.

As Russell points out, this is directly contrary to the spirit in which local government developed in the UK. While it wasn’t democratised until the 19th century, British local corporations and boroughs were run by figures who came from the community they covered and were generally not imposed by the state upon those areas. A huge number of social reforms, especially in areas of sanitation and education were brought about by local governments acting on their own initiative in that golden era of municipal liberalism. This is still a pattern we see in countries with a federal structure, where local government takes the powers they feel they need, not sitting by and waiting for the government to give those powers to them. This creates a true pluralism of power based on consent, and one that I believe would provide a much more useful basis to review and reassert the powers and abilities of local government than a centrally-imposed localism.

Another important principle here, and one that’s not discussed as much as it was when Russell was writing, is that of subsidiarity: ‘a Russian egg model of political power, in which it is held in a series of containers, one inside another, ranging from the United Nations at one end down to the parish council or an individual family at the other.’ It’s an important part of pluralism, where we assert that it is not simply important that power is dispersed but that it is used at an appropriate level to perform the task required of it. This is again based on consent, where those over whom the power is exercised determine the level at which it should be exercised, not a mighty central power choosing where it hands its power down to. This does not have to symmetrical, either – and indeed, a true test of whether power is being dispersed in line with subsidiarity is the degree of asymmetry – for not all areas will want the exact same powers. One can see this in the original structures of local government in Britain, where different corporations and boroughs did different things, depending on what they saw as important, and still applies in the USA where can one see wildly different amounts of power available to different local governments within the same state, let alone across different states.

PLuralism and subsidiarity may not lead to an arrangement of power that appears ‘efficient’ to those wanting to see strict hierarchies of power, but by dispersing power based on individual consent, we create a much more liberal arrangement of power, based on consent and individual need, rather than the needs of the centralised state. This does not mean an end to governments, or a belief that everything can be done at one level, be it local or multinational, but that we need to be continually asking ourselves whether decisions are being made in the right place where they will be most effective. We control the power of the over-mighty executive by bringing power as close to the individual as necessary for it to be used efficiently, and in the next post I’ll look more at how pluralism promotes the power of the individual.

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I can’t remember if I mentioned it at the time, but I’ve had my first article appear in Liberator magazine this year. It’s called ‘The Failure of Localism’ and you can read it – along with the rest of the issue it’s in – here.

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Two interesting stories from recent weeks that show what a couple of Secretaries of State think of it:

From last month, Michael Gove wants more powers to change how schools are run, to stop people having their say over what happens to their local school.

And today, Eric Pickles has started threatening councils that don’t do what he tells them with cuts to their funding. It’s about waste collections this time, but who knows what hoops he might make councils jump through for funding in the future?

As someone once said, while talking about something other than localism: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

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My dictionary’s had an update. It now says that ‘localism’ is defined as ‘giving people things they do not want; forcing them into changes they do not need’. Yes, ‘executive mayors’ are back, even though just about no one outside of the DCLG has shown any desire for them.

As I wrote back in 2009, this is a spectacularly bad idea. One of the strengths – yes, there are some – of the British system is that there’s a separation between the political and administrative sides of government, both nationally and locally. This smashes down that wall and opens the system to all sorts of formalised corruption when the executive mayor has the power to hire and fire council officers.

True localism would be about allowing councils to determine their own methods of running themselves, not just getting to choose from a restricted list of increasingly dictatorial options offered by the DCLG. A DCLG that actually cared about giving real powers to Councils – as opposed to concentrating what little power they have into individuals – would be working to devolve more powers to them. Instead we get more hare-brained schemes, scribbled on the back of an envelope in opposition and now being imposed despite no one – outside of a small coterie of advisers who’ve never had anything to do with local government, at least – thinking they’re a good idea.

But who cares about that when there’s the opportunity to bring clientelism formally into British politics. Gather enough votes for your executive mayor, and you too could be rewarded with a nice cushy sinecure at the Council. Welcome to localism, birthplace of the municipal Berlusconi.

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Remember localism? That grand idea that Government ought to stop interfering in the business of local councils and let them run services the way they thought would be best for their residents.

If you don’t, don’t worry. Turns out the Government – or at least the DCLG – doesn’t either. Chris White did a good job of pointing out some of the flaws in the Localism Bill on Lib Dem Voice this morning, but the real torpedoing of the idea below the waterline turns out to be a self-inflicted wound.

The only real surprise is that the wound appears to have been caused by Bob Neill rather than Eric Pickles, but as Neill is just echoing similar comments previously made by Pickles and giving them the stamp of kneejerk policy, he’s clearly doing Pickles’ work for him here.

Yes, it seems that councils should no longer have the power to decide how to collect their residents’ domestic waste as Bob Neill has clearly researched the issue in depth, spent lots of times with the various modelling tools and data sources that show the pros and cons of different collection methods, then come to a reasoned conclusion been reading the Daily Mail far too often, and decided that Whitehall knows best. Yes, he’s going to step in and “reverse the legacy of Labour’s savage cutbacks to weekly rubbish collections” which shows a spectacular failure by a local government minister to note that a) councils of all political stripes have moved away from weekly rubbish collections, and b) there are a whole lot more Tory-run councils than there are Labour-run ones, none of which have shown much of a desire to reverse any supposed legacy in this area.

Neill also seems to have spent the last month or so out of the country – or at least, I assume he has, otherwise he’s completely failed to notice the thick blanket of white slippery stuff that’s covered much of the country in that time. It’s perhaps not a shock to most people to discover that bin lorries – which move relatively slowly and are required to start and stop frequently – don’t always operate too well on icy roads.

What’s becoming clear is that rather than becoming the enabler and champion for localism, the DCLG is perhaps the biggest obstacle in the way it happens. Indeed, it says something about the way Britain is governed in that we still have a centrally-run department for local government, seemingly dedicated to ensuring that nothing at all happens locally that Whitehall hasn’t approved of. Labour were at least open about this centralised controlling tendency, decreeing new sets of targets and indicators almost daily, but now we’re in a situation where councils are told to do what they want right up until the moment when a minister shouts ‘stop!’ and berates them for doing it.

True localism would see the DCLG being abolished and Eric Pickles happily proclaiming that he’s made himself redundant, but I doubt we’ll see that any time soon.

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