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

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…

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Colin Green 2nd Oct '10 - 8:59am

    The third to last paragraph here finally gets to the point of his argument. As someone fairly new to the inner workings of the Lib Dems, I too have noticed a hallowed glow around the idea of Localism. As a sceptic of all levels of government, I can’t really grasp why local government is a panacea. I can see good and bad results from them all. Perhaps we are, collectively, predisposed to see local government in an optimistically good light as Labour and Conservatives are to the Unions and to the Markets.

  • Agree with the article

  • One of the real difficulties in local government is egotism. At national and supranational level, although clearly many individuals are highly egotistical, the system is (usually) big enough to absorb the egos that exist. Perhaps Gordon Brown was the exception that proves the rule. In local govt individuals and their powerful personalities can overwhelm everything. How does a fully devolved system cope with this?

    Let’s not throw babies out with bathwater. We need regulation, and we often need it locally, so we do need an influential system of local demoracy

  • patrick murray 2nd Oct '10 - 10:31am

    as a former cllr of 6 years (alongside stephen for some of it), and a current employee of a county council, i agree with stephen.

    if you look at nearly all two tier authorities, the vast majority of local areas, the county councils are run by large tory majorities. my experience of this is that urban schools in poorer areas tend to get ignored as a result. i’m not sure the current structure, which is centralised nationally, and then centralised locally too, provides the best possible all-round education that children need.

    i went to both a private school and a very good state school, and the biggest difference was the fact that whilst the private school was academically focussed, they actually taught you how to think critically, whereas in the state system all that mattered was results, which ended up effectively being a “learn this for this exam” approach, which in turn did not encourage critical thinking.

    i think this is actually the biggest reason why the proportion of top universities end up with a lot more private school pupils, namely because whilst the state system churns out people who can pass exams, good private schools churn out people who can think. it is the freedom that independent schools provide that allows for a better all-round education, rather than the centralised target driven approach of the state sector. i think there are many teachers in the state system who are excellent, and do a great job, but their hands are tied more. why should the choice you have of the type of education your kids get depend on how much money you have?

    liberals rightly point to education as the key to unlocking inequality. but few seem to ask what kind of education. a liberal society needs people who question and think, not just people who are conditioned to follow the rules.

    also when one looks at the tomlinson report of 14-19 education its clear that there is a greater need for a more widely respected vocational curriculum as well. more independence for state schools could be an important step in making sure there are schools that suit children of all different abilities.

    most proposed education reforms have either provided social mobility or equality of opportunity, rather than both. grammar schools, selection etc provides social mobility for poorer bright pupils, but leaves everybody else behind. conversely banning private schools, or the comprehensive system locks out poorer bright pupils but gives everyone the same chance.

    i think the idea of giving all schools (not just some like labour did, which perpetuated inequality) the opportunity to enjoy the freedom that independent schools have alongside the pupil premium could be a real chance to provide both aims, and encourage a different style of education. obviously there are issues that needed to be sorted out in the detail, but broadly speaking i think these reforms could make a real difference.

  • My main worry re free schools is their short termism. What happens once the kids of the main instigators are out of school?

    By and large I approve of the idea, especially as a stop gap until we have more money for more schools. Relaxing the rules on setting up new schools seems sensible too, however cutting out local government completely can be worrying. George pointed out the main conflict re localism though, some councils are useless but should the rest be punished as a result?

  • patrick murray 2nd Oct '10 - 11:11am

    at the end of the day its down to parents to decide what they want for their kids. if the local authority provides the education they want, they can stick with the current model. if it doesnt they now have a choice to do something about it that doesnt rely on income levels. so i dont see that good state schools, and local authorities, will be punished by these reforms.

  • It’s an excellent article and exactly encapsulates why the free schools debate was so depressing.
    We have replaced ‘the gentleman in Whitehall really does know best’ with ‘ the person in the town hall knows best’.

    The level of dislike for middle class parents who want the best education for their children was extraordinary. There was a real feeling that it would be better for standards for all to be lower rather than some do better.

  • Sorry Stephen. Hogwash.

    The Free School debate is nothing to do with LD mindsets, council conservatism or establishment thinking.

    Nor does the party need to create an innovative education system, full of whiz-bang new ideas imported from foreign lands no matter how much evidence exists to say they will fail – as Gove and Teather have attempted to do with Free or Charter schools.

    New Labour’s education policies were at the core, strikingly basic. And in essence – they were right. As a teacher who has spent many years in the classroom and the headteacher’s office – the only innovations you need are:
    – Fair Funding (not addressed in the way the pupil premium is being referred to by Lib Dems I fear to add)
    – Decent environments
    – Balanced Curriculum
    – Good teachers
    – Regular academic benchmarking
    – Sound social structures to ensure parental + community support
    – Time. (In the simplest sense. Put it in football terms. Alex Ferguson has had 25 years to craft one of the finest football teams on the planet. Newcastle changed their manager 3 times in a season and got relegated. Go figure)

    Free Schools attack every one of these building blocks. They are socially divisive, free-market experiments that will further divert huge amounts of funding from schools most in need of it. They will produce schools with short-term aims, where middle-class parents will be seduced to exit local schools by a synthetic sense of exclusivity – further eroding the fabric of comprehensive demographics. They will teach all types of biased and dangerous curriculums, delivered by untrained, unaccountable teachers. Their environments will be harsh, cheap and considered unimportant, completely unable to foster a sense of pride in young students.

    They are illiberal in every sense – and a classic sign of Tory privilege being forced down systemically, to blight the lives of pupils without parents able (through work or extended family commitments) to take months of free time to set a school up. This is a ‘heartless tory’ policy – one where markets are being forced upon our education system; where any localism is being replaced by Gove’s DfE massively centralising it’s funding mechanisms – and above all – one where 1980’s style sink-estate schools will again be left to rot.

    It further depresses me that your party justifies this policy – ignoring it’s membership – all to justify a political partnership.

  • An excellent article (the best on LDV for a while) and a good discussion. I admit if I had time I would found a school locally, as I know that a lot of parents are underwhelmed by Kingston’s provision.

  • Tim Leunig,

    Er… Who runs Kingston Council?

  • Lorna Spenceley 2nd Oct '10 - 9:56pm

    Stephen, I agree with your article, which seems to me an excellent exposition of something I’ve observed myself. Niklas, what I said about Fenland was that there’s a longstanding issue with the only state secondary school in Wisbech, and that parents who aren’t happy with the provision there have only two options – leave the area or send their children over the border into Lincolnshire or Norfolk. The county councillor there recently went on record saying he wouldn’t send his own child to the local secondary school. I do worry that in its eagerness to condemn any educational movement not under the control of the state, the party is at risk of abandoning parents in areas where there is no choice, poor provision, and a useless local authority.

  • Is not the obvious point that local government is NOT supposed to be a ‘special interest’ set against the public but the mouthpiece and expression of public will. It may not be like that in this poorly functioning democracy but that it is supposed to be . To compare it with unions, big business etc who do claim to be specifically sectional interests is just an error. A preference to have schools , hospitals , police forces spending huge sums of our money answerable to democratically elected local bodies does not strike me as a Liberal foible just as a generally sensible thing to do. Liberals usually want to be to make democracy work better not remove democratic accountability.

  • BarnsleyBoy 3rd Oct '10 - 10:38pm

    Hi All,

    I’m quite new to the site, pleased to hear the high level of the majority of posts, very interesting.

    An anecdote but I feel it is illustrative. A Granparent in my village who’s Grandaughter had diabetes became a school Governor. When the school policy on administering insulin in emergency situations was agreed he resigned as a Governor.

    I fear that this level of self-interest may be present in what may appear to be altruistic, communtiarian involvement.

    Answer: imho slow down. Few people can justify (or sustain) years of self-serving falsehood. If someone is willing to campaign for a Free School two years after their own child or grand-child has passed the age they could benefit from it then I’ll give them BIG RESPECT…

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