Against Labour’s nascent localism

[Originally published on LabourList]

An internal Labour movement of thinktankers, MPs, journalists, and academics (including LabourList’s own editor, Mark Ferguson) has coalesced in recent months around the idea of devolved power. This centre-left informal pressure group received national media coverage for a letter they wrote to the Guardian last month urging Miliband to adopt an alternative approach for the 2015 manifesto. Beyond the much lampooned think-tank jargon (translated into English by Temi Ogunye), the proposal concluded with the blunt (and inaccurate) judgment that ‘the days of politicians doing things “to people” are over’. What the quotation marks are supposed to indicate is that politicians must now do things “with people”, or according to the letter’s authors “do things themselves, together”. What they want to create is a collaborative democracy in which citizens are no longer the passive recipients of Westminster diktats, but the empowered co-producers of policies and communities (apologies, wonk-speak seems to be infectious).

LabourList this week published a set of articles for St George’s Day that promoted the development of an English identity, a proposal that chimes with the broader theme of devolved power that was at the heart of the Guardian letter. If we are to fulfil the ambition of ‘giving away power and resources to our nations, regions, cities, localities’ then the biggest and least-devolved nation is the obvious place to start.

All of this sounds quite nice, although I feel an immediate repugnance towards talk of nationalism of any kind, with its inherent reliance on in-groups and out-groups. Leaving that to one side, who could really object to citizen power, accountability, predistribution and all the other things that this clique bunch together? Well, me for one. This left localism, which is well-intentioned, is ultimately misguided. It seeks to address the problems of voter apathy, political disillusionment, mistrust of politicians and the decline in democracy that these ills precipitate, but it misdiagnoses the cause of these symptoms.

The many things that are wrong with Britain (and England, and the South West, and Manchester, and Norfolk etc. etc.) are not caused by a democratic deficit, though that may exist, they are caused by the weakness of the state. At the start of their letter, the signatories identify some of Britain’s problems as ‘a financial system too big to fail or jail; austerity causing unnecessary hardship to those at the bottom of a massively unequal society; climate change flooding people’s home; and a democratic system that seems pretty irrelevant to any of these problems’. In addition, I would add a socially and personally catastrophic penal system, the seemingly unassailable power of wholly self-interested corporations, the continued flourishing of racial and gender discrimination, and a public discourse that promotes revulsion towards and punishment of immigrants and benefits claimants.

We seem to be broadly in agreement on what ails the country, but we differ markedly on the prescription. The localists recommend ‘giving away power’, but what confronting these problems seems to require is the exercise of significant power and the ability to use that power to garner consensus on decisive action. If the total amount of political power is finite, as the localist position seems to require (is it really ‘giving away’ if nothing is lost?), then strengthening England must mean weakening Westminster. On the terms they set out, this is a zero-sum game: power gained at the periphery necessitates power lost at the centre. If Labour is to enact the ‘transformative change’ that the signatories say we need, then Miliband will require all the power of a unified state to achieve these ends.

International banks cannot be held accountable by the citizens’ council of Mile End, nor can energy companies be coerced to provide greener electricity without the vast incentives and punishments that only the state can wield. The state must continue to do things “to people” and more importantly “to companies”, because there are things that people ‘themselves, together’ cannot achieve. There is no collaboration necessary when dealing with tax-evaders, no discussion needs to take place with energy companies to cap their prices and curtail their profits, no consultation with Virgin Trains will alter a decision to rescind their franchises, and the Kensington council don’t get a veto on raising the top-bracket of income tax. The state is useful because it aggregates dissipated sources of power into a single voice capable of challenging powerful vested interests. Fracturing that voice can only reduce its usefulness, but shouting down injustice will restore its legitimacy.

What is needed, in all of these instances, is the power of the central state. This power can only be conferred on the institutions that represent the collective body of the people, not on the fragmented, self-referential coalition of quasi-autonomous local institutions that this clique proposes. An English identity, expressed through the institution of a devolved English government, is not the solution to the problems we face. Disillusionment with British politics is a result of the continued inability or disinclination of politicians to exercise their power in the interests of the people. The apathy generated by the outcomes of our current democracy does not require still further democracy. What is needed is better politics, not more politics. As David Runciman’s latest book makes clear, in a democracy there tends to be ‘far too much noise, not enough signal’. What we need isn’t more noise, it’s a better signal.

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