When localism confronts Bonapartism

Published by The Guardian (4th July, 2014)

A whiteboard in the corner of Jeremy Hunt’s Whitehall office symbolises a struggle over the soul of modern government. It details “never events” that have taken place that week in hospitals. Three items were written there by Monday morning: a foreign object left in one patient’s body, the wrong implant in another and one of those terrifying incidents of “wrong site surgery”, such as when the wrong leg is chopped off.

This board of blunders shows how the health secretary sees his role as patients’ champion after the fallibility of the NHS was exposed by cruel care scandals. Hunt has also phoned hospital chiefs to quiz them about accident and emergency targets. Yet the Tories took power pledging to devolve power to an unprecedented degree, even removing political accountability for NHS provision. Instead, a senior minister monitors individual surgical mistakes and intervenes in the minutiae of hospital admissions.

Such are the tensions when short-term political considerations crash into long-term ideals. Look at planning, where a desire to give communities more control clashed with the desperate need for more housing. Or education, where Michael Gove loosens the grip of government over the running of schools even as he tightens what they teach.

It all feels some way from the “big society”, which began with a lofty desire to transform the relationship between state and citizens by giving away power. This much-maligned idea sought to use devolution and transparency to empower individuals, driving improvements in public services that too often let down the most disadvantaged. In France, it is being pushed by a thinktank fed up with the failures of fumbling socialists; in Britain, even charities see it as a dismal failure, according to a new survey.

Although rarely mentioned, traces of the core concept can still be detected in the coalition. They can be seen in the 24 ‘City Deals’ transferring chunks of funding and control to local communities, pioneered with a Labour mayor in Liverpool, patiently pursued by Greg Clark in the Cabinet Office and now purloined by Lord Adonis in his growth review. Or in Gove’s brave education reforms, despite recent hiccups. It is also noticeable that NHS hospitals have hired 5,900 extra nurses since last year’s Francis Report into the mid-Staffordshire horrors in response to renewed emphasis on care, backed by tougher inspections, rather than orders from Whitehall.

The paradox is that localism must be driven from the centre. Several key Tory ideologues quit government in frustration, driven out by a stifling combination of civil service complacency, establishment arrogance and political short-termism. In truth, few politicians paid more than lip service to the idea. It is also far more attractive to people in opposition scrabbling around for policies than those wrestling with the realities of government. ‘We seem to want localism and Bonapartism at the same time,’ says one cabinet minister drily.

Now we see Labour going through similar contortions. Jon Cruddas, the thoughtful policy supremo, was intrigued when Tories in opposition began discussing ideas that dovetailed with some of his views on devolution. But a leaked conversation has revealed his fears that bold proposals to disperse power may be blocked by party leaders, contrasting the ‘hope and optimism from some thinkers on the left’ with the ability of politicians to deliver change.

Cruddas remains confident of driving through a radical programme, despite colleagues’ attempts to restrict plurality of provision in some public services. His challenge is to change the culture of a party inclined towards top-down solutions and a default position of complaining about postcode lotteries rather than embracing the search for localised innovation. It is also run by a team that rose under Gordon Brown, whose answer to any question was more money. Like many Tories, they need to start seeing policies through the prism of power, not just money, and learn to trust people.

Take an experiment by the charity St Mungo’s Charity to help the hardcore homeless. Some of these people had spent decades on the streets, shattered by addiction and mental health issues. But instead of lecturing them about lifestyles and available services, the charity gave them the chance to spend small sums of cash to change their lives. The subjects chose things the state would struggle to offer: a wedding for one couple, a secondhand caravan for another, just a pair of trainers and a television for a third. Yet this was enough to help hard-to-reach rough sleepers move off the streets and stay off.

Even in these extreme cases, the key was handing people the power to control their lives. ‘It enabled us to have a different conversation, asking for their help instead of just telling them what we offer,’ says Howard Sinclair, the charity’s chief executive. As with personal health budgets or communal solutions to crime, simple ideas can be transformational and cost-effective; the state spends more than £26,000 a year on health, policing and prison costs for each long-term homeless person.

We live in a consumerist age driven by digital disruption, with constrained budgets against a backdrop of deep scepticism over politics. As Cruddas argues, the new political faultline lies between statist conservatives clinging to centralised control and liberal modernisers ready to let go. It is not enough just to devolve authority from Whitehall to town halls; on both left and right, politicians should seek power today only to give it back to the people. But which party will fully grasp this?

Related Posts

Categorised in: , ,