Reclaiming Local Democracy: Ines Newman

In this post Ines Newman describes the argument of her recent book “Reclaiming local democracy: a progressive future for local government“. Ines argues against the market fundamentalism informing the changes in British local government since the 1980’s, outlines an ethical framework to guide decision making by local politicians and argues for a vibrant, and genuine, participatory democracy.

Local government has become increasingly dominated by what George Soros, Joseph Stiglitz and others have called ‘market fundamentalism’. It was Nicholas Ridley (then Environment Secretary with responsibility for local government) who proposed in 1988 that the local state should be an ‘enabler’. Councillors should meet once a year to hand out contracts to the private sector. New Labour furthered this approach, suggesting that ‘community leadership’ and ‘place-shaping’ were the new roles and local authorities should not get distracted by service delivery. This could be left to managers with pressure to perform to targets set by central government. Finally, the Coalition Government has argued that local government should not deliver any services directly but should ‘be excellent and open commissioners of those services which cannot be devolved to individuals and communities.’

In my book, Reclaiming Local Democracy: A progressive future for local government, I argue that the impact of all this has been negative in three ways.   Firstly there is a confused focus on ‘what works’, with limited consideration of the question ‘works for whom?’ The focus is usually on symptoms rather than causes and decision-making is technocratic, concentrating on efficiency and cost.

Secondly, there has been increased marketisation of public services. Michael Sandel has argued that in the USA you can currently buy most things, from prison-cell upgrades to your doctor’s mobile phone number. Market values have come to play a greater and greater role in social life, corroding the way we value public goods, and increasing inequality.

These consequences lead to the third problem:  a growing lack of trust in representative democracy. If decision-making is technocratic and public goods no different from private goods, what is the role of the councillor? ‘Politics’ becomes a dirty word. Instead we are taught to value ‘hard working’ individuals or volunteers, ‘ordinary people’ who do not need public services.

To turn this around, I have argued that local government needs to reignite an interest in political and ethical questions and support participative democracy.

In the book, I draw on political philosophy to argue that local authorities have an obligation to tackle injustice. I develop an ethical framework in the form of a set of eight principles that can be used to interrogate a policy to see if it would shift society from’ how things are ‘to how they ought to be’. The book contains many examples- from fairness commissions to support for new universal free school meals- showing the way local authorities can operationalise these principles.

Localism is a hollow concept. You will always need strong central government to tackle inequality. So the issue is not about devolving minor powers with limited funding. It is about opening up central government to the influence of joint campaigns run by local councillors with their constituents. This would help to reclaim democracy. It requires councillors to promote active citizens and participative democracy and, with their communities, to seek to influence the national agenda, so as to achieve progressive change.

These are profoundly different approaches to local government and have many implications which are discussed further in the book. The enabling council sees its role as ‘smart commissioning’ and reducing cost and in this process undermines an understanding of public goods, community and democracy. The ethical and democratic local authority is focussed outwards, listening to the voices of those who are usually not heard and discussing with their constituents how to make a better world. These processes cement an understanding of citizenship and the common good and make it possible to start to struggle to reclaim local democracy.

Ines Newman is an Honorary Visiting Senior Research Associate at the Department for Politics and Public Policy at DMU and a core member of the CURA team. Ines is a leading expert in local government and public policy and a trustee of the Paddington Development Trust

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