Tomorrow along with Cllrs Steve Reed (Labour Leader of Lambeth Council) and Cllr Colin Barrow (Tory Leader of Westminster) I will be facing the Grand Inquisitors! No not the Spanish Inquisition or the Witch Finders General but the DCLG Select Committee of the House of Commons.
We are there because Joe Simpson of Local Government Leadership bullied the three of us into giving part of our summer to writing a booklet on ‘Localism and Big Society’ to be launched at our respective Party Conferences. We agreed to do this because we do recognise that this is an important time for localism. For the first time in my memory all three major parties nationally have expressed a belief in localism at national level. It is certainly written large in the coalition agreement and we await with great interest and hope the Decentralisation and Localism Bill to be presented to one of the Houses of Parliament on 17th November. Much has already been done by this government to sweep away officious centralism and the quangocracy that came from it. To give credit where it’s due the last three years of the Labour Government also saw a reduction in interference from Whitehall Warriors.
As I have remarked before there is more in common between those of us in the three political traditions between those of us who want to devolve and empower and those who don’t. Indeed I was amused to see the housing cooperatives of Liverpool spoken about with approbation in the Labour booklet although Labour had voted against every single one of them being built under a Liberal initiative (It was some time ago!).
In our book Erica and I wrote of the traditional links of liberals to the concept of community politics. Or concern for Lib Dems is that it has become too much a mantra for winning elections and too little a programme of real transfer of power to people. Not enough Liberals when in power have had the courage to trust the people. Many poorly performing Lib Dem administrations are as centralist as poorly performing Labour or Tory ones. This is a tragedy for a party based on the concept of the transfer of power and the ability of people to run their own lives.
Of course not everyone wants to run their community, their church or their neighbourhood. Most people quite reasonably want to get on with running their own lives. But most people, who after all pay the money that we use, want to be informed about what is happening and to have their opinions listened to. By involving people to the maximum that they want to be involved, by listening to them and hearing what they think we can save shed loads of money by directing services and activities at real needs and opportunities. If that sounds an obvious statement to make – IT IS! Too often, however, politicians and officers are guided by what they think is best, by what they think is right and that often excludes the real experience of those we wish to help.
Much of the rhetoric of Big Society can be safely ignored. There will not be 5,000 self motivated, self-financing volunteer coordinators pulling millions more people into active citizenship. We cannot run our society on the proceeds of coffee morning and flag days. There is a role for volunteers and millions of people already fulfil that role but volunteers, no matter how dedicated, cannot replace the professionalism of or public sector workers but can complement that professionalism.
What our booklets show is that we can get on with localism where we want and how we want if there is a determination to do it. The current economic crisis that we face demands from us that we do things differently, that we spend our limited cash ever more carefully. Good localism is an end in itself but an important part of getting value for money in these straitened circumstances.
So I want your help! There are two things you could do:
- Be outside Portcullis House tomorrow at 5.00 to cheer Steve, Colin and with big banners and chants of ‘what do we want – localism! – When do we want it – Now!”
- Or if you want to be entirely more practical let us know what you are doing about localism. How you are responding to ‘Big Society’ and what we can do to help you.
We are determined both within our own Parties and outside them to spread the concept and practice of localism – we hope you will join us.