It is hard to tell, because the new Building Britain’s Future website says, as I write, “Error 404: Page not found”. But judging by the prime minister’s statement today, it doesn’t represent a meaningful shift towards localism.
That was the rhetoric – a shift from top-down targets to individual entitlements – but when it comes to localism, Gordon Brown is the victim of a huge misunderstanding. Targets are targets, Mr Brown: you don’t escape the huge inefficiencies they produce by having fewer of them, or by dressing them up as entitlements that people can enforce. And certainly not, as in the case of the NHS 18-week waiting list, by turning them into an obligation.
Quite the reverse. It will mean more administrators employed to shift people through the system and find creative ways of avoiding the various definitions, and it will reduce the money available for just doing the work. Targets are top-down, by their very nature. It doesn’t matter what you call them.
But the real problem is that politicians of all parties are very confused about localism. They gargle with the ideas, but believe it is something about giving people a little bit more, having fewer targets and setting up local committees. They get marooned in the narrow question of where each function of government should take place – a kind of parlour game for politicians before they lose the will to live. They miss the point.
The real problem is that centralisation is far more insidious than they realise. Not only does it make government and public services intensely ineffective, creating vast inhuman institutions – factory hospitals and monster schools – where professionals are constrained from using their human skills to make a difference. But it also reduces us from citizens to supplicants to vast organisations, public and private.
Westminster politicians still don’t get it. Their localism means lots of local administration, while the tentacles of economic centralisation stay intact. Local parish mayors are still supplicants to Tesco or vast hospitals, schools and distant mega-police forces. It means intricate webs of individual entitlements, when the public services we need still don’t work properly. They still treat us as units to be packaged, as potential legal minefields, as one-off bundles of need to be processed, without giving us the individual attention – via long-term relationships with professionals – that will actually make change happen.
Politicians urgently need to understand that localism also means devolving power to frontline public service staff, to give them back the initiative to make things happen. Or devolving responsibility to public service clients, delivering broader services alongside professionals, tackling our distant, burgeoning monster institutions, the huge schools, hospitals and jobcentres that manage us, and tackling the monopolistic centralisation of business.
Taken together, the implications of centralisation are that we have become supplicants to a combination of increasingly distant government systems, working with increasingly distant and monopolistic private corporations. That is the Supplicant State and one look at the key points in Building Britain’s Future shows that we still live there. This is all about what they are going to give us. Keeping us as supplicants isn’t going to work – we have to find ways of handing real power and responsibility downwards.
David’s new pamphlet, Localism: Unravelling the Supplicant State, is available to download from the nef website.