Friday, November 12, 2004
Are you local?
The heavy defeat for the government in last week's North-East England regional devolution referendum has been portrayed mainly as a defeat for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Well, you've got to have a scapegoat, and he's a good a choice as any.
What no-one seems to have noticed are the problems this vote has caused for the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems have been long-standing champions of a devolved system of federal government. And their key policy on the public services, the Huhne Commission report (a painstaking compromise approved two years ago), is predicated on there being a system of regional government in England.
Suddenly, a major plank in the Lib Dem election platform is looking wobbly. If even the most regional of English regions rejects regional government by 78% to 22%, can the Liberal Democrats still credibly support this policy for the whole of England at the next general election? Certainly, the Labour Party has abandoned English devolution for the foreseeable future.
The Liberal Democrats had begun to distance themselves from the 'Yes' campaign even before the referendum result was known. Sensing a defeat, they prepared a critique along the lines that the result might have been different if the government had promised the regional assembly more powers. This view was shared by many other critics.
I'm not so sure they're right. Nor do I agree with this article in Spiked, which, though it challenges conventional wisdom, seems to suggest that what's missing is the smack of firm (central) government.
The political concept of English regionalism has gained momentum only because the pace has been forced by Scottish and Welsh devolution. Faced with the famous West Lothian Question, politicians are trying to mould some equivalent identity for English regions where none exists. English people do feel alienated from decision-making but the answer is not to create artificial regions with no authentic popular identity.
The problem runs much deeper than regional boundaries. The widespread alienation from politics is part and parcel of a growing sense of insecurity that people experience because they feel they no longer control their own lives. This lack of agency is partly the product of centralisation and globalisation, but also stems from the loss of all the anchors of solidarity people once had; the neighbourhood community, the extended family, the church, the local pub or club, the trades unions and other forms of mutual support.
I do not share a rosy nostalgia for these traditional community institutions - they could often be oppressive - but the point is that they have been removed without anything better being put in their place.
Creating new tiers of political authority, albeit at a more devolved level, does not necessarily address popular insecurities. People in Lambeth, who can see Westminster from the windows of their council flats, feel no less alienated than people living on Tyneside.
Liberals in Britain once had a very good analysis and remedy for this problem. It was called community politics. Its goal was to enable each individual to fulfil their potential rather than simply offer passive voters an alternative set of leaders.
The Liberal Democrats still practice something they call 'community politics', but it has degenerated into a technique, a purely tactical and ultimately debilitating round of electioneering and casework, which wins council seats without achieving any radical change.
Instead of supporting the creation of new layers of managerialised political authority, the Liberal Democrats need a period of reflection and greater intellectual rigour. They might then realise that the answer lies in releasing people's energies rather than seeking new ways to manipulate them.
If our local politicians spend their time being put through government-approved management training courses and learning how to be more 'professional', the mere fact of being 'local' does no good at all.