The Saturday Debate: Local government is to the Lib Dems what the unions are to Labour and big business is to the Tories

by Stephen Tall on October 2, 2010

Here’s your starter for ten in our Saturday slot where we throw up an idea or thought for debate…

I was struck by this recent article by the Economist’s political columnist Bagehot, headlined When progressive actually means misanthropic, reflecting on the Lib Dem conference, and specifically the debate on free schools.

Highlighting that, while the party may have lacked power at Westminster, the Lib Dems have for decades now been a major player in local government, it observes that:

… local government occupies much of the mental space taken up by national politics in the Labour and Conservative parties. … more importantly, the party’s local councillors and municipal bigwigs are not just figures of authority, they are insiders and incumbents. And when the party’s local government forces band together, the overall tone is neither radical nor idealistic. As a force, local government Lib Dems can come across as amazingly conservative, with a small “c”.

And the article goes onto note the impact this mindset has on the Lib Dems’ approach to free schools:

The prevailing mood [of conference] became clearer once other speakers, many if not most of them local councillors or education professionals (or both), weighed in. Free schools would be a bonanza for the “pushiest parents,” thundered one. They would drain money from all schools in favour of “a small number of privileged children”, said another. The right to offer a “narrowly academic curriculum” amounted to a stealthy bid to introduce academic selection in state schools.

[A Lib Dem conference fringe] audience—well-meaning and “progressive” local councillors, school heads and school governors—appeared convinced that changes to education policy (and certainly any changes to the powers of local councils over schools) spelled misery and disaster. … The assembled Lib Dems chomped mirthlessly on limp sandwiches and harrumphed their support for the status quo. They seemed blissfully unaware how wildly reactionary they sounded, and how jaundiced about human nature. Give parents and school heads more autonomy, they argued, and they would inevitably use it for ill. …

In short, this room was packed with people who are (I am sure) brimming with the milk of human kindness, but who simultaneously seem to believe that individuals are wicked and selfish if they are not constrained by collective, communitarian oversight. I must admit, this is a brand of liberalism I had not come across before. It was also novel to find myself surrounded by people who think Britain’s current education system is such a howling success that it should be preserved from serious reform. … it was a powerful introduction to a tribe I had not met before: reactionary, special interest Lib Dems, whose laudable concern to defend fairness for all is tainted by a sour whiff of misanthropy.

The view of Lib Dem conference representatives was overwhelmingly agin free schools. And, indeed, there are good arguments to be advanced against the model proposed by the Coalition. But I heard far too few arguments advanced by those opposed to free schools about how — were it to come to pass — a majority Lib Dem government would actually transform the educational fortunes of those pupils currently let down by state school education.

True, I heard lots of aspiration: that every pupil should have a well-funded local school, with excellent teachers free to get on with their jobs and inspire. But I didn’t hear how this would happen in a way that was radically different to the ways that have been tried by many governments down the years, and too often failed. The vacuum was instead filled by a mixture of condemnation of ‘heartless Tories’, and trust that — left to local authorities — our education system would soon come good, somehow. Given the controversy of the motion, the quality of the debate was deeply disappointing (on both sides, I should add).

But free schools are just one — if currently the most totemic — example of the Lib Dems’ deep faith that, if devolved to local government, public services will be magically transformed. I was a councillor for eight years, so I’m not going to take cheap pot-shots at those (whether on the right or left) who believe town halls are consumed by pettyfogging bureaucratic meddlers: they are not. The vast majority of those in local government work hard for their communities, and are too often under-valued. And it’s absolutely the case that more, much more, of our public services should be devolved to councils to deliver.

But — and it’s a real but — I think Bagehot is onto something about the Lib Dem mindset. When it comes to local government, the party too often behaves like the establishment. Just as Labour is pre-disposed to believe the very best of the unions, and the Tories the very best of big business, so do Lib Dems have a tendency to assume local government is as good as it gets. We are too ready to suspend our scepticism — even though we know the public mistrusts each of these groups when they are seen to act as special interests which place the public second.

It is not that we are blind to the faults of councils (especially when we’re in opposition!), but we too often see them as the end-point: once a service is run by the council, job done. We too often lose sight of the need to devolve from councils still further, to the individual users of the service themselves.

Those who opposed free schools did so on grounds which included ‘efficiency’, objecting to the waste ‘in an age of austerity’ implied by surplus places. These are depressing terms for liberals to be using in the context of advancing a vision of the Lib Dem belief in the potential, opportunity and value of education — a point similiarly made by Lib Dem bloggers Jonathan Calder, David Boyle and Richard Flowers. But it’s just the kind of talk you pick up if you spend too long in town halls.

Agree? Disagree? The comments thread is open to you…