by Stephen Tall on February 16, 2014
Reason: for starting to talk the talk of devolving power to people.
Politicians always talk of giving power to the people – when they’re in opposition. Their enthusiasm is wont to fade when they find themselves in government and realise giving it away will make them less powerful.
For the past four decades, successive governments, both Conservative and Labour, have accreted more and more power to Whitehall, stripping it from local authorities. This year, some 60% of all local government funding will rely on grants from central government. Money is power and he who pays the piper plays the tune. Commentators often worry about the low voter turn-outs in local elections – frankly, I’m amazed that as many as 40% of the electorate bother at all given how little freedom they’re allowed.
The Coalition promised to turn back the centralising tide. Its Decentralisation and Localism Act 2011 contained many fine words. But on the most important issue – who holds the purse strings – it was strikingly unambitious. Even the better measures, such as Nick Clegg’s ‘City Deals’, are all about ‘earned autonomy’: local authorities proving to the Treasury they can use money wisely (as if central government would ever pass the same test!). And in its worst measures, such as Council Tax capping and interfering in the frequency of bin collections, the Coalition is as bad as previous governments.
It’s safe to say, then, that Ed Miliband had a low bar to clear when it came to setting out his views on ‘people powered pubic services’ in his Hugo Young lecture this week. It’s also safe to say that a lot of people will remain sceptical about whether he actually means it this time, or if he will fall prey to the usual forgetfulness of politicians who promise to devolve power.
Still, it would be churlish not to at least acknowledge that a Labour leader stood up and told his audience that he wanted to put an end to the old model of top-down service delivery: “the ‘compassion that wounds’ – well-intentioned, properly motivated, but nevertheless disempowering”. And it would be equally ungracious not to recognise his pledge that:
it is right to devolve power down not just to the user but to the local level. Because the centralized state cannot diagnose and solve every local problem from Whitehall. And if we are to succeed in devolving powers to users, it is much harder to do that from central government.
Calling him a Liberal Hero is pushing it a bit. The words, especially these words, are easy to utter; much harder to translate into meaningful action if Mr Miliband finds himself in government. He gets the nod this week because he is at least facing in the right direction… and pour encourager les autres.
But there is a long way for the Labour leader to go on his journey, as The Times’s Philip Collins (himself once a speech-writer to Tony Blair), highlighted in a rather brilliant article, Yakety-yak doesn’t give power to the people. Here’s how it concluded:
Labour will also have to give up its tendency, written through both the Miliband and Cruddas speeches, to grant power to institutions happily, but to people only reluctantly. Labour speaks with relish of incomprehensible structures such as city-regions but individualism, in its lexicon, is always “rampant”. Individualism, for the Labour person, is like crack cocaine, quite impossible in moderation.
If power is going to be popular property, Mr Miliband would have to give them the money. He would have to allow new providers to flourish. He would have to give up the assumption that the public sector is the ethical superior of the private sector. He would have to persuade a party that has an optimistic view of human nature in general that it needs to learn to trust actual human beings in particular.
Now if Mr Miliband can bring himself to utter those words… Well, then he truly will be a Liberal Hero.
* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.