What’s left?

Labour will lose most as politics becomes more local
August 24, 2011
Members of the group Eco-Pirates occupied a small Thames island to claim it for public use

So far, there have been two main accounts of Britain’s riots. One lays fault with Tory cuts, a lack of growth and social alienation; the other blames the breakdown of policing, family and the welfare system. But when we look back after the next election, this summer may have changed politics in a very different way from what is implied by either narrative. It may have begun a shift in power to the local level in a manner that David Cameron, like others before him, has promised but not yet delivered.

Restoring respect for society and the law, reconnecting unemployed youth to employers, breaking gang cultures, ending welfare dependency—all of these demand local solutions. Getting it right, community by community, in modern multi-ethnic Britain will prove impossible if power is too centralised. Parliament can legislate all it likes (in recent years, always too much). But rebuilding the sinews of a peaceful law-abiding country will only happen at the level of the community. This must include all sectors: public, private, for profit and non-profit. Police and elected officials must share a table with community activists, employers, faith leaders and others. And from this, action must follow.

I believe that this is the new turn British politics will take in response to the tragedy of the riots. Certainly, Cameron’s Big Society reflected an awareness of the coming localism. So did Ed Miliband’s early promotion of Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour, with its emphasis on empowering communities. But I suspect they are still in for a surprise.

The demand for local control over decision-making has been a gathering global force for 20 years. It has come from peas ants in the Bolivian highlands, city dwellers in the chaotic Nigerian capital of Lagos, Chinese parents who have lost children in accidents caused by faulty construction, and Scots sceptical of far-off Westminster.

At its broadest, this movement is a reaction against the loss of control over one’s own life that many people feel globalisation has brought. There is an increasing desire for greater local control of public spending, policy choices and regulators. It is born of the belief that strengthening community bonds encourages people to behave themselves.

Today, much of the power over economic management, security and countless other areas has been swallowed by perceived “black holes,” such as the G20, the IMF and the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, valuing what is local—be it indigenous cultural events, local organic food or a shared communal history—fits with our growing instincts as citizens and consumers.

For Britain, the next step is how this localism affects national politics. Since the 1950s, support for smaller parties has risen dramatically. This has been attributed to the rise of concern about specific issues: demand for independence in Scotland, devolution in Wales or green policies in Brighton. Yet just listing these examples shows they are as much explained by geography as anything else. The Lib Dems tend to be strong in traditional rural border areas and cities where they have been active in local government. In a pub in Taunton, for example, one is left in little doubt they are the authentic local vote, in the same way Plaid Cymru or the SNP are in parts of Wales or Scotland. And the Green party’s Caroline Lucas, a former MEP for the wider Sussex area, is the consummate local MP in a progressive, recycling seaside town. She is Brighton’s self-image personified.

So what is left for national politics? Largely a caretaker role, brokering between the global and the local. Whitehall and ministers will represent Britain in global forums on financial imbalances, climate change, terrorism and communicable disease, while at home they will find themselves increasingly limited to setting national spending frameworks for local decision makers.

For Labour, unless it can overcome its legacy of 13 years of disappointing big government solutions which crowded out local responsibility, this change could be deeply threatening. Particularly if Britons continue to display their desire for a wide range of choices in local elections and, at the national level, opt for boring managerial competence. Rick Perry, the Republican presidential candidate from Texas, has been derided for saying his goal is to help Americans forget about Washington. But in this, if nothing else, he may be on to something. The circumstances are very different here, yet at the last election, as in several before it, both major parties essentially eschewed new ideas.

Ed Miliband may be distancing himself from Blue Labour, but it would be a mistake to turn his back on localism. If indeed our expectations about what national government can do are becoming more modest, then Tory-led governments, with an emphasis on rolling back state control, are best set to capitalise. What may prove less comfortable for them are the stubbornly independent-minded, often progressive, local leaders who will be intent on pulling their strings.