It is interesting to read two articles exploring localism and the future of Labour. Any interest I may have in the Opposition’s political strategy is not for an RSA blog, but I hope I will be excused some pondering on the wider issue of whether national governments can deliver progressive change.
The articles are a rather trite Mark Malloch Brown piece in the current Prospect - in essence arguing that Labour must become more localist in its policy and organisation - and a much richer and more thoughtful commentary on Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour penned by David Runciman in a recent London Review of Books.
While Malloch Brown simply asserts (albeit with some interesting international references) that localism is the way forward, Runciman argues that Blue Labour’s hostility to liberalism is, on closer inspection, an implicit antagonism to the processes of national representative democracy and the type of governance that tends to flow from it.
Like Malloch Brown I can be a lazy localist (that’s probably why I am being so critical of his piece). The ugliness of Westminster politics and the clumsiness of Whitehall government provide a seemingly infinite list of annoying and amusing targets.
Geoff Mulgan once said to me something like; ‘if there’s one best way to do things the centre should mandate it, but if there are several it should be devolved. Unfortunately, Whitehall massively exaggerates the number of problems with one best solutions’. Exactly. I also think that the more a public service or social outcome depends upon relationships between state and citizen which go beyond the most simply transactional, the stronger is the case for locally determined solutions.
But this doesn’t mean the centre doesn’t matter or that progressives (of whatever Party) should abandon Westminster and head for the fields. For a start localists need a central Government committed to localising in an intelligent way (so far the Coalition gets two thirds of a tick for the former and a third for the latter). There are also big issues (climate change) and powerful forces (banks) to which only central Government can realistically face up. Thirdly, it is national Government which has to be the driving force behind progressive internationalism (it has been argued that one reason why Americans are reluctant internationalists is that they don’t trust federal Government to negotiate on their behalf).
This is a big topic and blog posts should be short, but in the face of lazy localism I think we need to try to untangle the various aspects of the apparent loss of faith in the centre among many progressives. Here are some of the main elements (and a top of the head rebuttal)
- The centre is simply the handmaiden of global capitalism (this may be the view of the current and previous Government – although if it is I think it is a little unfair – but a quick glance at the difference between, say, Finnish, Italian and American societies indicate there are many different ways of being part of the global capitalist economy)
- Westminster party politics (and the way it is reported) is stupid, adversarial and dishonest (OK, but is it possible to imagine it being different? And what about the parts that are rather impressive such as the best work of select committees?)
- Whitehall is high handed and incompetent (this is simply too much of a generalisation and anyway local politics is hardly always a cradle of enlightenment and collaboration)
As a Malloch Brown says, the Coalition has its own answer to the strong centre. A combination of somewhat cack handed decentralisation and the rolling back of public spending means the centre will become much, much, smaller (although it was interesting to see David Cameron wasn’t averse in response to the recent disorder to either dictating operational policy from Number Ten or spending more money).
So perhaps this is an opportunity; not to wait for the pendulum of public opinion to swing back to central programmes and national service standard gaurantees (which, by the way, it inevitably, eventually, will), nor to abandon the centre in favour of community politics. but to start to explore more deeply what might be the characteristics of a progressive national polity.