The Johnson Government and democracy

Today’s Conservatives have a very crude idea of democracy, and no concept of local democracy at all. Those who watched the government’s daily press conference on June 11th will have heard Matt Hancock appeal to British citizens to do their ‘civic duty’ by observing their government’s latest revision of the rules for social distancing. He then went on to welcome the new test and tracing system, and thank Serco and Sitel for the part they had played in setting it up.

I had watched successive scientists commenting on the days before about the unavoidably local basis of any test and tracing scheme, and their amazement at the government’s failure to involve local authorities and their public health officers in its organization. Sitel, in case you had not heard of it, is a US multinational company with its headquarters in Miami: not the most obvious choice when looking for expertise on the ground in Yorkshire, Lancashire, Suffolk or Devon.

Right-wing Conservatives have despised local government since Mrs. Thatcher – as largely Labour-run, union-dominated, and wasteful. Their preferred model, as we have seen, is a Michael Bloomberg figure: an elected mayor running each city region on a business-like basis, without much partisan politics. Taken from the American model, this demonstrated the shallowness of their understanding of the raucous and multi-level democracy of American cities and states.

The populist Ukippers who have now taken over the government see our national leader as representing the will of the people, and not needing other levels of representation or accountability, including to Parliament or the hated BBC. Boris prefers to communicate with ‘the people’ by press conference, with selected questions from ‘vox pop’ representatives to limit critical questions from the press.

Deep prejudice against the public sector is also evident in the award of successive contracts, without open competition, to major outsourcing companies and consultancies. Deloittes were commissioned to set up the initial testing stations. Not surprisingly, these suffered from lack of awareness of local and regional travel patterns and centres of demand. Funds have generously flowed to private companies, while local authorities have struggled to cope with additional demands while facing near-bankruptcy. Local public health officers, with the knowledge and existing contacts to link social care, the NHS, local universities and voluntary organizations have been sidelined; ministers have preferred initiatives from the centre, mostly outsourced and inadequately prepared.

Populist democracy depends on a passive electorate, which responds to every breezy promise from their leader, about ‘oven-ready Brexit’ or ‘world-beating’ test and tracing schemes, and forgets what had been said when government fails to deliver. We’ve seen how many citizens would indeed be willing to do more than their ‘civic duty’ in the numbers who responded to appeals for volunteers – and then found themselves sitting by the phone uncontacted when contractors struggled to convert promises into practice.

In today’s populist environment, ideas of active citizenship, civic engagement and local democracy are unwelcome and radical. We should all be pointing out to embarrassed Conservative councillors, local media, voluntary organizations and others that a significant part of the failure to cope with the coronavirus emergency is the result of over-centralization and ideological dislike for local public services. Matt Hancock’s idea of ‘civic duty’ is doing what national ministers tell you to do. The Liberal concept of active, engaged citizenship, within a local, regional and national framework, is a political universe away from that.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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  • Barry Lofty 15th Jun '20 - 1:35pm

    Lord Wallace: It so good read another article on this site today which really highlights the dire situation in our country. You mention Sitel of which I have some knowledge, after selling our family business in the nineties my wife and I moved to our cottage in the Vale of Evesham, we could not retire then so had to find work until we reached that age, I eventually found work at a call centre in Stratford upon Avon, not on the phones thank goodness but in the mailroom . This company was taken over by Sitel and I observed how they obtain their contracts which is by promising to supply numerous staff who were duly signed up on short term contracts and then laid off when responses were nowhere near in the quantities they envisaged. I felt sorry for people who thought they were embarking on a long-term job only to be dismissed after a few weeks, I witnessed this scenario over several years. I managed to hang on to my less than rewarding job to leave of my own volition on reaching retirement age. I have to say I worked with many lovely people in a similar position to myself in said mailroom!

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Jun '20 - 2:13pm

    Lord William Wallace

    Right-wing Conservatives have despised local government since Mrs. Thatcher – as largely Labour-run, union-dominated, and wasteful. Their preferred model, as we have seen, is a Michael Bloomberg figure: an elected mayor running each city region on a business-like basis, without much partisan politics.

    It is the Labour Party when they were the national government, not the Conservatives, who pushed the idea of councils being run by elected mayors.

    I was the Leader of the Opposition in the Labour controlled London Borough of Lewisham at the time that Labour there was pushing hard wanting it to be run by an elected mayor – one of the first councils to do that. I was the one who stood up firmly against mayoral control.

    Because what is mayoral control? Stopping running control by a group of representatives and putting it into the hands of a single person. There’s a word for that – fascism. Yes, to me, mayoral control of a council is local fascism. I would also say there is another word for fascism, and that is “neosocialism”. It seems to me that’s just as valid a word as “neoliberalism” which Labour has pushed to damage us.

    Labour put together a conference of randomly (?) selected voters to agree to having mayor control, and condemned me for still opposing it after that. However, they did not even give me (or anyone else) an opportunity to speak to that conference to give the case against mayoral control. They just presented them with biased material in favour of mayoral control, and then claimed it was true democracy because they agreed to it. That’s a good example of how neosocialism works.

  • John Marriott 15th Jun '20 - 4:57pm

    There is indeed an obsession on the right of politics with the ‘strong man‘. Sorry, ladies; but it usually is a man. It’s not just in local government, with elected Mayors replacing councils. What about Police and Crime Commissioners replacing Police Authorities? General Elections begin and end with which person would make the best Prime Minister.

    This can lead to a plethora of elected individuals including City and Regional Mayors with nobody quite sure who is senior to whom and who is responsible for what. The north west of England would appear to be a good example. It’s not unlike the collection of ‘Tzars’ appointed Over the past few years to sort things out. How many of them did?

    Many of these great ideas were imported from across the pond, as are soon likely to be chlorine washed chicken and hormone fed beef. Isn’t that where so called ‘Care in the Community’ came from, as well as open planned schools? I might be old fashioned, but I prefer the idea of collective responsibility. Probably one of the most Reformative governments in recent times was the post war Labour government, led by a man, who allowed talented people to get on with the job and kept very much in the background. As Churchill rather unfairly said of him; “A modest man, with much to be modest about”.

  • I think the subject of this article should become the party’s main campaigning theme: it unifies, and gives point to, so much of what we advocate, and properly deployed it ought to be popular. But it will only succeed as a theme if it can be distilled into what Conrad Russell called ‘a catchy and highly recognisable tune’. How would you suggest we achieve this?

    If we can achieve it, it will beat our recent witless slogans, and the dusty pile of unread policy papers, into a cocked hat.

  • @ Michael Meadowcroft Agree with every dot and comma of your posting, Michael, but with just a query about what was introduced in 2012.

    In the words of the Beatles, he “got by with a little help from his (Lib Dem) friends”.

  • So, how does the message to voters go – “We believe in a strengthened local democracy but we still want to be managed by a central bureaucracy in Brussels”.

    The first time that I became aware of ‘regional mayors’ coincided with becoming aware that the EU were pushing for ‘metro’ mayors as part of the regional plans coming out of the EU’s Committee of the Regions.
    Where cities would dominate policy over towns and villages – a centralisation of power, if ever I saw it.

    It was at this time that the party political scales fell from my eyes.
    Throw a new position or construct on the table and tell people that they can vote for it, and people feel compelled to vote to keep the other guy out.

    The ‘cabinet’ system in local government has seen the same centralisation of powers put into the hands of a few.

    On the subject of failure due to the incompetence of bodies – civic, voluntary, or otherwise – to the poor schmuck on the street, these all seem to have been wrapped up and weaponised for political purposes.

    Populism (democracy) only turns nasty when it is seen that the establishment (sloppy, I know) seem not to be working for them.
    It’s time for politicians, of all colours, to take a long, hard look at themselves and decide who they are working for.

  • The Covid crisis has highlighted once again that our neighbours often do things much better. The devolution of power and money in, for example, Denmark and Germany enabled them to handle the pandemic much more effectively. The Federal structure of Germany is well known with 16 States with substantial devolution and tiers of local government within each State. Denmark collects all taxes centrally but only 26% is retained by the government in Copenhagen. The other 74%, including for healthcare, is spent in the 5 regions and 90 municipalities. What a difference from the centralised and over-bureaucratic British model.

  • Katharine Pindar 16th Jun '20 - 10:35am

    Thanks to William for leading this important discussion about the failing democracy of our country, and stirring us to work for the active, engaged citizenry that we believe in. I would like to know how our Lib Dem council leaders are finding their work impacted by the appointment of the metro mayors, and whether their own powers have been seriously diminished as seems likely. Meantime it’s valuable to learn here about the costs and deficiencies of outsourcing, and also in this current crisis about the counter-productive sidelining of local public health officials.

  • William Wallace 16th Jun '20 - 12:34pm

    Thanks for comments. I hope we will make the revival of local democracy a major campaigning theme. I suspect there’s a great deal to dig out on the way outsourcing has been extended and contracted – and on whether some of these firms contribute to Conservative Party funds.

  • Peter Hirst 16th Jun '20 - 3:10pm

    Public health emergencies demand excellent local intelligence, decision making and authority. But to do that they need sufficient resources, something they have been lacking for decades. A true federal system of governance needs a different type of national politician who can gladly give up power and believes in local democracy.

  • David Garlick 18th Jun '20 - 10:39am

    Spot on.

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