Why Scotland’s 2012 Local Government Elections are an opportunity to radicalise Government

The notion that government could be used to transform the power structures of society to the advantage of workers was at the heart of much twentieth century radical thought. And the success of this notion is the reason why neoliberalism has a profound attack on government at its core. Many radicals reject this attack. That is why people defend the welfare state, the NHS and state schooling. But there is one area where radicals have joined the attack on government. And this is in their attitude over the past 20 years to local government.

There is very little support for local government as a way of transforming power structures to the advantage of workers amongst radicals. At best radicals have suggested that local government should be retained as a way of delivering services. It may be that the concerns of local administration are deemed to trifling for people with radical aims, or it may be that radicals have accepted the neoliberal analysis because there are seemingly more important fights to have. Who wants to advocate visionary local authorities as a solution, when you can proclaim your love for the NHS?

But this retreat by radicals merely strengthens the neoliberal attack on government. It’s vital that we not only defend the ability of government to transform economic relations at local level; it’s vital that we seize the opportunities local government gives us to remake the political economy of Scotland. We need to bring new and exciting ideas to local government. It must be a front in the battle to reclaim our lives from the reckless imposition of neoliberalism by the Westminster government. It’s too important to be a sideshow to constitutional debates. It must be at the heart of our agenda for 2012.

The 2012 Local Elections are a vital turning point for Scotland. You’d not know that to watch the Scottish media, or the approach being taken by the major political parties. The elections offer the chance to fundamentally reconfigure Scotland’s politics. But the vision that could transform our cities and create a new municipalism is almost totally missing.

Local Government in Britain helped to create the modern state. Our cities were made possible by civic government building very substantial infrastructure and delivering huge increases in the quality of life. If you go to Glasgow, Birmingham, or my own home town of Belfast, the headquarters of the Local Authority can lay claim to being the finest building in the city. These marble palaces reflected the importance of local government, and the reforming zeal of the corporations responsible for their construction.

In the 1980s a new municipal left emerged that was responsible for the huge strides in rights for women, LGBTIQ, black and minority ethnic groups. Where central government was mired in the institutional prejudice of the mid-twentieth century local government played a key role in breaking that hegemony. Many local authorities were also at the forefront of resistance to the worst excesses of the Thatcherite class war. So it made sense for Thatcher to clip their wings, to cap their rates and to impose a Poll Tax intended to curtail their spending power. She even deployed Section 28 to prevent Local Authorities using their say over education to break down homophobia.

A generation of skilled Labour Party politicians including Ken Livingstone, David Blunkett and John McDonnell came through this route as the prospect of ministerial office faded under Thatcher.

Since then Local Government has slumped to being an almost destitute poor relation of central government. It is dogged by a paralysing managerialism that has reduced local authorities to bodies that merely deliver services, but do not govern. But the powers exist in Scotland for Local Government to again take a leading role in the transformation of our lives. What is needed is a big vision, exciting ideas and a new calibre of Councillor.

But the reality is that since the Concordat in 2007 Local Government has had power unprecedented since Thatcher started to undermine local government in the 1980s. The agreement between Finance Secretary John Swinney and the umbrella organisation for Local Government in Scotland CoSLA had a significance that has rarely been understood.

As the new Scottish Parliament took shape in the early years of this century it very often defined itself against Local Government. It’s clear that, rather than seeking more power from Westminster, MSPs sought to ‘make local government work’. The main instrument in this strategy was the ring fence. More and more money was released to local authorities in pots that had to be dedicated to a purpose determined by ministers. Councillors were deemed unable or unfit to make strategic decisions, and were left only to decide on delivery.

Finally, Jack McConnell used the second Partnership Agreement with the Liberal Democrats in 2003 to push through a package of proportional representation for local government alongside remuneration packages to encourage long-serving Councillors to step aside. This meant that a very large number of new Councillors were elected and areas that had been run by Labour administrations for decades were suddenly in no overall control.

Then, in return for a three-year freeze on Council Tax Local Authorities were granted freedom from ring fencing in November 2007. They could choose their own priorities, could decide to spend money as they wished and should have been in a position to make big strategic decisions.

But what happened instead was more of the same. Local Authorities continued to do what they’d done before, they were no more strategic; it seemed that they could no longer act with the vigour of their 19th Century forebears, or even the political nous of their 1980s predecessors.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly the Councillors elected in 2007 were elected to administer central government policy, not to make decisions for themselves. It will take some time before the calibre of candidates we need will return to leadership positions – and certainly those elected before such a profound change in the powers of local government were very unlikely to be equipped to handle this level of power.

As Councils became less about local government and more about local delivery of services, so their decision-making became more driven by officials and less driven by politicians. The result is that politicians who want to make decisions don’t get involved in local government.

The focus on local service delivery also stifles those with a broader politics. Under the current system, if you are interested mainly in campaigning to save your local park then you might want to be a Councillor; if you’re interested in human rights, developing a new economy or changing the world, then you won’t want to be a Councillor. But the reality is not only that local government can help to change the world it is also that people who are interested in changing the world often have a better understanding of how a city or area could be better run.

Many of those who did most to make local government effective in the 1980s were politicised by their opposition to nuclear weapons, their desire for equality for women or the LGBTIQ community. Such concerns are much less common in current local government. We must find ways to ensure that these concerns and issues that have become more important are on the agenda of local government.

At a time when Scotland is paying serious attention to constitutional questions, the question of how our communities govern themselves should be ready for consideration. And Local Government should be at the heart of this.

So, what is to be done?

We need a vision for the future. The Transition movement is one of the most exciting movements of the past ten years. Transition takes climate change and the inevitable end of cheap fossil fuels as an opportunity to develop stronger communities. At the heart of this is a 20 or 25 year plan to move communities away from fossil fuel dependence. The plan is drawn up by the community and encompasses the full range of services that each area requires.

Using concepts like this to focus on what our communities should look like will re-engage people with Local Government. Each area, ward, community council area and Local Authority area should be facilitated to make a 25 year plan setting out how the people want the area to develop.

This will move Local Authorities away from the short-sightedness that necessarily accompanies day-to-day service delivery. The energy from bringing people together to envision the future of the communities in which they live may even allow day to day services to be much better delivered.

We need better Councillors. We’re only likely to get once chance in the next five years to improve the quality of Councillors. It’s really very important that we get the best Councillors at this election. We need more Councillors with real vision for our cities and communities. Where at present many Councillors are either concerned with very local problems, or led by officials, what is needed are people who can develop and articulate ideas that can transform our communities. In some ways this is a pretty apolitical requirement. But what is important is that our elected representatives are able to work with their communities and lead their communities. The very act of providing participatory leadership is itself an act of resistence to the continued attacks on those without access to personal wealth.

We must demand more of local authorities. It’s really important that we begin to expect more of local authorities. These are bodies run by highly paid and professional officials. They should be capable of delivering high quality services, and more importantly, appropriate community leadership. They are every bit as important as the governments in Westminster and Holyrood. Radicals have seriously overlooked the possibilities that Local Government offers for change. The 2012 elections offer the opportunity to reverse that oversight.

There is an exciting vision for Local Government. It is that it should focus much more on enabling communities to decide on and deliver services. Social media creates the opportunity to deliver more effective local services by allowing much gathering and sharing of information. Where services for much of the twentieth century were provided on the basis of uniform provision, we can use social media and new technology to deliver personalised services.

Local government has as much of a role to play in delivering a better world as national governments do. Failure to properly contest this year’s elections and continued managerialism in local government does nothing to promote a radical agenda for a better world. We must recapture local government as a way of resisting neoliberalism and spreading democracy. Let’s make the 2012 Local Elections in Scotland the beginning of a revival for local government.

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