The New Localism

Alan Milburn, proper Blairite (retired), has got the faith (you’ll need to have a subscription). He thinks Labour’s third term goal should be ‘subsidiarity‘. He wants Labour to embrace decentralisation, devolution, community-level decision making and law enforcement and all things modishly grass-roots – ‘the new localism’ he calls it. Of course, I think he’s dead right. One of the big frustrations of the first two Labour terms has been the grim-faced, white-knuckled refusal to loosen the grip on central power – or rather the paradoxical readiness to devolve power to Nations, Cities (and even regions) but, and at the same time, to concentrate real power – mostly in ministries but also in a long list of agencies, committees and commissions – at the centre.

I want to be even-handed – most Governments talk the ‘power to the people‘ talk while in opposition but then find the glamour of undiluted power difficult to give up once in the hot seat – and not always for sinister reasons. The temptation, as a barnstorming, pro-change Minister, for instance, must be to think: “I’ll just get this raft of reforms out of the way then I can hand power back to the people in time for my replacement’s shift. If I expend too much energy devolving power now I’ll never get through my programme and we’ll be back at square one”.

Still, I don’t need to tell you that the net already makes a powerful argument for decentralisation. In a networked world, the theory goes, power, like intelligence, settles closer to the network’s edge, in the ‘nodes’ themselves and miles from the big, dumb core where decision turnaround can approach infinity and where bad decisions – skewed by political contingency, electoral short-termism and simple ignorance – are in the majority.

If Milburn is on the money, if his ‘new localism’ is going to have Labour’s official endorsement for the third term manifesto, I think this is the kind of issue that could excite jaded supporters and catch the imagination of ordinary voters and might give the next Labour Government the boost it needs.

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  1. And to that end it would be nice if Labour promoted the tools/ Net / social software to re-build their real-world communities, atomised as they are by population shift and the culture of mistrust and fear of crime (Copyright, the Daily Mail). Such as (a project not unadjacent to myself).

  2. One of the problems for localism is that the local decision-making is controlled centrally, with a large amount of the cash coming from the central. Douglas Carswell’s recent ASI paper makes the case for scrapping VAT and council tax, and instituting a local sales tax which would put councils in charge of all of their budget.

    There is also a case to be made for decentralising some of the decisions councils are currently making, and enabling individuals to make more decisions themselves about their services. Universal education does not require local education authorities (or Whitehall planners). Refuse collection does not require the council to select a monopoly provider. Real ‘subsidiarity’ puts more power in the hands of ordinary people.

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