An Unnecessary Role

embracing false choices

Archive for June 2011

Dispatches from LGA Conference

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To Birmingham for LGA conference, the Glastonbury of localism, just with beef stew instead of Goan fish curry and Richard Kemp instead of Bono. The new Chair of the LGA is Sir Merrick Cockell, late of the London Councils parish and a localist with a proven track record of working with all parties and sticking up for local government. I think he is an excellent choice by the Conservative Group, and he marked his appointment with a thoughtful speech. He made clear that local government needs to rise to its reputational challenge and win back public trust and emphasised the value of local democratic leadership in what I took as an implicit rebuke to the prevailing tendency to undervalue local democracy and to fetishise community groups and volunteers.

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Then to the launch of a new book by Barry Quirk, chief executive of Lewisham and all round public service guru. The session explored some of the many ideas in the publication about the ways decisions are made, the ways policy can be improved and the ways things get done in the public sector. He used the example of Kevin Hines, his quest to prevent suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge and the response of public officials to a complex problem. His example brought to mind two imaginative responses from elsewhere in the world, both Big Society in their way. In Belgrade the number of a local support group is projected onto the water with the message “you are not alone”, while in China a man named Chen Si spends his days on the Nanjing Bridge, persuading people not to jump. Community champions and public sector responses come in many forms.

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Business rates and the Local Government Resource Review provides the backdrop to this conference, as potentially the most serious reform to local government in the coming years. London Councils has made their own contribution to the debate, designing a model that would not only work in London but would also ensure fairness across the country. Nick Clegg’s speech to conference this morning contained a much trailed announcement about the future of business rates, but much of the detail remains obscure. Anna Turley has a good summary of the main issues at Left Foot Forward.

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Finally for now, a plenary session on ‘councillors as social entrepreneurs’, and the way local politicians can work with local social enterprises and community groups to deliver services and change in their areas. Inspiring as much of the work so many community projects do, the correct role for local democratic leadership is an elusive one. There is a danger that in simply being vague supporters and enablers of local projects, councillor roles are reduced to simply being the people who know the way around the Town Hall, the person with the officer’s phone number, which I don’t think says a lot about the importance of their democratic legitimacy.

Steve Reed of Lambeth perhaps pointed to a solution to this question by explaining how his council are seeking to reshape how their services are delivered to give more power to local people, doing services with people rather than to people. For him, councillors are the democratic leaders of the community, changing the council so that it is better able to meet the needs and aspirations of residents.

Another speaker compared councillors to Gandalf. I will leave you to make up your own jokes.

Written by samelliot

June 29, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Finance, Localism

Playing the postcode lottery

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A commenter on my ProgLoc post takes umbrage with my lukewarm support for the ‘postcode lottery’. I think his argument slightly misconstrues what I was attempting to evoke – a difference in the type of service provision, and a difference in the priority given to the expenditure of finite resources, rather than a difference in the outcomes we as a party want to see. But there is a suggestion there, I think, that we can’t allow something as messy as local decision-making to interfere with priorities identified by and at the centre.

I suppose I would argue that if we are an egalitarian party then not only are we fighting for equality of opportunity but we’re also fighting for equality of power (it says so on the back of the membership card). Isn’t part of that making sure that all communities have the ability to make decisions about their local area?

I’ve always thought of the Labour Party as having a mission to organise democratically to fight for equality at all levels, not to rig the system to prevent local difference where it is ideologically inconvenient.

Mind you, after last night’s Newsnight debate about Blue Labour, I can’t pretend to be certain about anything the Labour Party does.

Written by samelliot

June 21, 2011 at 9:00 am

Posted in Labour, Localism

Local democracy should be the Labour Party’s big idea

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Earlier this week, a rallying call for localism sounded from two unlikely sources. First, exhumed from the ‘Draft folder’, was the leader-that-never-was David Miliband’s victory speech-that-never-was in the Guardian. While inevitably attention focussed on his approach to the deficit as distinct from the current leadership, the speech made a clear, unambiguous localist statement:

“The government talk about localism. Without local government. We should be the people standing for more devolution of power for local government and come our next manifesto, we will.”

Meanwhile, the leaked Balls memos sketched Gordon Brown’s vision for local government focussed on the needs of families and children:

“The Local Government Revolution: solving problem requires local government that changes to be on childrens side. Not soft option – just spending more on children, paying teachers more, giving LAs new powers.”

It’s debatable how many local authorities would have relished yet another ‘revolution’ in children’s services, and Gordon Brown may not have been a natural localist, but there’s no doubt that both he and Miliband major viewed local government as a way of delivering social democratic aims. We do not yet really know how Ed think about local government and we do not really know how he would seek to answer the question that Sarah Hayward posed last week at ProgLoc – what is ‘Labour’ localism?

My new post at ProgLoc attempts to show how the Labour Party can benefit from exposing the plight of local government under the current government and proposes some possible solutions. As government bypasses local democratic institutions, fragments local public services and assails the reputation of local authorities, Labour can act right now to reinvigorate local politics, and pledge that a Labour government would secure for local government the independence and the power to re-integrate health, schools and welfare under a strategic, accountable and democratic authority.

Bookmark the site, if you don’t already.

Written by samelliot

June 17, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Posted in Labour, Localism

What the cleverest man in the world has to teach the Labour Party

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After a few days of utter stupidity that in years to come will probably recounted in breathless Rawnsleyesque prose as ‘the weekend that made a leader’, Ed Miliband finally made a speech that begins to articulate a policy vision and speak to the people I was brought up to believe the Labour Party represents.

I thought the speech better written than some of his previous ones and the presentation less stilted than usual, although the ‘normal people’ segment was every spinner’s worst nightmare. It brought to mind the cringe-inducing 2010 manifesto rally where an audience of bussed-in hacks booed the media who then proceeded to give the event the shortest of shrift in the evening bulletins. Nonetheless, I think the messages will play well, will give the party confidence and, ultimately, point towards the right set of policies.

That’s not really what I wanted to post about today though. I have just finished reading The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen, a mind-bendingly bright economist at George Mason University. This profile gives some hint of what an astonishing polymath he is, a man who has read every major work of Western literature, consumes books like you or I would read the Metro on the way to work, and is capable of dashing off a post about his favourite things from Hungary which dwells on how tough it is to choose his favourite conductor. We are, with the best will in the world, an awful long way from Ed Miliband.

The central thesis of the book is that the world has just reached the end of an unprecedented period of growth caused by society reaping the benefits of the ‘low hanging fruit’ of technological, scientific and medical discoveries that have, in more recent years, become far more scarce. It is fantastically readable, especially for the non-specialist, and makes a compelling argument that the world must now prepare for a period where growth will not inevitably return to the economic cycle. The financial crisis, in this reading, is a symptom of a more profound problem with the global economy and of our inability to spot it. As Cowen puts it:

We thought we were richer than we were.

I am still trying to process what this all means for the way I view some of the political challenges we face, but Cowen’s view of American politics struck a chord. He views the American political system as, at present, incapable of facing up to the Great Stagnation. The political dialogue in America is traditionally one between a left that pursues social democratic aims by using the proceeds of growth to expand government, and a conservative right that seeks to restrain that growth in order to protect traditional institutions and mores. With no growth for each side to define itself by, the positions are effectively reversed.

“The reality is that members of the American left have, whether they like it or not, become the new conservatives. At least in economic policy, they are usually the defenders of the status quo. In contrast, some of the so-called “conservatives” are the radicals seeking major change.”

I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a rather neat way of highlighting one of the Labour Party’s key ideological dilemmas. In a world of economic crisis we are faced with a radical government born of two parties with a zealous approach to reforming public services and reducing the size and cost of the state. We, too often, have retreated to a position where it is easy for us to be accused of wishing to preserving in aspic institutions like the welfare state and the NHS. Labour is too often the party of entrenched public sector interests, of resistance to innovation in public service delivery. Meanwhile, thinkers and commentators seek to actively redefine the party as a conservative force under the dubious guise of Blue Labour.

And yet the core mission of the Labour Party is a desire to change society in order that it better represents the aspirations of its ordinary citizens, to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many and not the few, as someone once said. Here we must depart from Cowen, who is, by nature and ideology, suspicious of the capacity of government to drive social change. He believes that it is only when the low-hanging fruit emerge again that the social democratic left will be able to pursue this mission once more, a fundamentally empty quest at the mercy of global economic movement.

I don’t believe that is true. Whether we are in the midst of a Great Stagnation, or whether its because of the radical reshaping of the state the government is carrying out, the Labour Party must be able to operate as a political force in tough times as well as prosperous ones. It must demonstrate that not only does it have a radical mission but also that it has an innovative approach to achieving its goals. Anna Turley of Progloc said in the Observer this weekend that:

Ed should look to where Labour is redefining itself – in local government. Councils are building co-operative models in social care and housing, transforming the way the state and local people work together.

The cooperative council model being pursued in Lambeth gives the lie that public service innovation is only being practised in Conservative authorities. It is just one example of where Labour people, left almost to their own devices in local government, are pursuing different approaches to the business of politics and policy. A Labour Party platform that articulates a core mission that can be delivered through these policies is one that can meet the challenges of the future, stagnant or otherwise.

Written by samelliot

June 14, 2011 at 9:30 am

Posted in Labour

Universal credit won’t work for London

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The Independent this morning reports on research commissioned by London Councils into the impact of the universal credit. The report is damning in illustrating that current plans for London will leave people worse off in London than in the rest of the country and will provide little incentive to work as entering work will leave people worse off than staying on the benefit.

Families in London – where child care and housing costs are significantly higher – will be particularly badly affected, according to the analysis commissioned by London Councils, an umbrella organisation representing all local authorities in the capital.

It found that a single parent with two children living in the capital would be £5,168 a year worse off under the Universal Credit if in a full time job on a minimum wage, using childcare, than under the 2011 system. Nationally a lone parent in the same situation would be £4,300 a year worse off.

A couple who both work full time and have two children will be £2,333 a year worse off in London and £1,528 nationally.

The report can be found here and I urge to read at least the Executive Summary. It is difficult to argue with the aim of simplifying the benefits system, but with these reforms the coalition appears to be making the same mistakes I highlighted over housing benefit and pupil premium. Assuming that Government knows that costs of labour, property and other resources vary across the country, what on earth can be the reason for persisting with this flawed appraoch?

Written by samelliot

June 13, 2011 at 11:03 am

Posted in London, Welfare

What I’ve been reading (2)

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Away from Eric Pickles recounting Monty Python jokes (like some kind of giant student) I have been reading:

The sordid details of the latest installment in the New Labour death spiral. Highlights including Gordon Brown TYPING EXACTLY LIKE HE TAKLS, the image of David Miliband reciting the speech he will never give to his wife in the back of a car, and the realisation that we remain just as bad at this sort of business as we have been for the last five years.

Paul Richards summing up the essential malady of the Labour Party and one of the modest missions of this blog in one elegant article. And much to chagrin of the progressive majority he alights upon the one central truth about the position of the left in this country:

The challenge for a socialist party seeking the votes of a non-socialist electorate has been the same down the ages. It is about persuading non-Labour people that their self-interest is served by voting Labour. It may be that we didn’t come into Labour politics to help affluent voters in Essex; it may be that we came into politics to end homelessness, tackle poverty, end the scandal of poor children being written off before even going to school. But the truth is that unless affluent people back us in vast numbers, we can offer the poorest people nothing except charity. When Labour has recognised the true nature of the electorate, electoral success has never been far behind; when Labour has mythologised the electorate, or projected its own desires onto them, it has failed miserably.

And Tim Harford writing about another of this blog’s themes, the frequent strength of pragmatism above principles:

The awkward truth for the pragmatist is that they will constantly be bumping into their own errors and trying to fix them. But if pragmatism is a painful process of continually correcting errors, ideology is a blissful path of being oblivious to them.

In the work bag, The Great Stagnation by Tyler Cowen, the most blisteringly intelligent person on the planet taking about why things might not get better (yet).

Written by samelliot

June 13, 2011 at 7:00 am

Posted in Reading

In which Eric Pickles laboriously explains his own joke

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In doing some research, I found this report from February, a section of which I present without comment:

Responding to the shadow communities and local government secretary Caroline Flint in the Commons on Wednesday, Mr Pickles said: “The deputy leader of Nottingham Council is a gentleman called Graham Chapman.

“Obviously this is the same name as a late and long-missed member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

“Now it seems to me that the right honourable lady should get on the phone to this gentleman and tell him, as his namesake’s mother did in The Life of Brian, that he might be the deputy leader of Nottingham City Council, but he’s a very naughty boy.”

Written by samelliot

June 9, 2011 at 9:23 pm

Posted in Localism