I went this to Jon Cruddas today. I am a political animal!
Congratulations on your new job. I know I’m not one of your constituents (Jon Ashworth is my MP - I got him to say ‘bollocks’ when he came canvassing, and that cememted his reputation with me) and I don’t know if you will ever manage to read one unsolicited email amongst the many hundreds you will get each day, but I’ve just read the profile on you in the New Statesman, and a lot of it chimed with me.
The fact is that although the working classes might not all be in a mill nowadays, we do still exist in large numbers. Why am I telling you this? You know this. Over the last few months, I have been at on the bus to work, thinking about politics. What is it about politics that I don’t like?
1) the current government;
2) the endless spectacle of nit-picking, pretence, misrepresentation, flannel and testosterone-powered dick-swinging that is political discourse in this day and age;
3) the press;
4) a good number of the people doing it
I thought then about what we could do about it:
1) vote them out in 2015, or hope they somehow go away in the interim (they won’t);
2) don’t watch Newsnight, especially if Baroness Warsi is on it;
3) don’t read the papers, or at most skim-read the Guardian website but never read the comments under Polly Toynbee’s pieces;
4) I have no idea
And I came to the conclusion that civic society in Britain now, or more specifically England, is backwards.
People see government as coming down on them from above. Every party talks the talk of empowering communities, choice, accountability, blah blah blah, but none of it ever seems to stem the ever-increasing sense of estrangement we feel from a caste (it’s definately a caste rather than a class) of professional politicians in London who have literally no idea what it’s like to live on £19,000 a year in Leicester. Empathy is one thing. David Cameron and Tony Blair are past masters at pretending to care about the concerns of the little people, but still we sit, divided by the power you wield over us.
You see how easy it is to fall into that kind of language? I have never met either of them, I’m sure in person they are both fine men with caring personalities and sincere concern for others, but I kind of know in my bones that they don’t really get what I want, and because of that I feel alienated from them. It’s just how we all feel nowadays.
And it’s all so hectoring. I’m an intelligent man, with enough nouse to find a woman willing to marry me, bring a lovely little boy into the world and hold down an alright job to pay for it all. Most of us are, in fact. I can work a lot of stuff out for myself, and don’t need some faceless junior minister who talks in numbers lecturing me about passive smoking. I know it’s bad for me, I’d figured that out without your help. But it’s very telling that someone in Whitehall thought I would need it brought home to me on the news, and it would be best delivered by a suit full of bugger all with an annoying voice and a deeply patronising busybody demeanour.
This is because civic society is backwards. Government is something done to me. The decisions are made above my head, so far above my head that the processes that inform them cannot be seen. There is a seperate discourse in government that we are just not party to. It takes no account of us.
Why? Local government.
I have met several local councillors of all parties, and found them to be an utterly average bunch. As a technician at Leicester City Council I had to explain to a visiting Lib Dem councillor how to use a mouse. Hilarious.
No. It’s not chucklesomely idiosyncratic to be unable to use a mouse, it’s bloody ridiculous. I use one every day, so do 20 million other people, but you think it’s OK not to know how to use one? If it’s your job to represent me (and in his case it was, as he was one of the councillors for my ward), I at least want you to realise the symbolic importance of you knowing how to use this most universal of tools, just like me and 20,000,00 other people do, and if you don’t already know, damn well learn.
But why should councillors be any good? They know their job is pretty much futile. All the power and functions that the need to run a city have been gradually leached away from them over the years by a procession of centralising ogvernments who don’t trust anyone else to run the national kitty. Now they’ve had all their money taken away, too. They don’t get paid sod all, so why bother making a decent go of it only to be told by an email from the DCLG that you can’t do what you want because you haven’t got any budget, and even if you did have one, you can’t do it anyway. Responsibility without power is not a happy place to be.
But civic society starts here, with these powerless dead fish who can’t get a proper job. And if they’re so useless, I’m not going to bother voting for any of them am I? So I have nothing but animus against the council, because if they can’t do what I want them to do then I’m just going to ignore them. I’ll moan about paying my council tax and throw a wobbler at a bin man instead. I’ll tut and gripe and say to whoever will listen that if you ask me, they’re all as bad as each other, and why do I want to pay some egomaniac twice what I earn to be mayor?
People at large have little to no idea what it is their council actually does, apart from take their money. Not because they don’t shout about their achievements, because they do. We moan about that, too. But we don’t know what they do because we have no personal investment in their work. Because civic society is backwards. They do unto us, they don’t work with us. And this is because they are done unto in their turn. Which is why the last place you’ll find our best and brightest nowadays is as an elected councillor in a city like Leicester.
What I’m talking about here is a massive redistribution of power, a total reversal of the structure of governanace. We start with a rejuvenation of local government’s powers and funding, and the reestablishment of their moral right to work as our local authority by making them the tax raising bodies. I’d also fund it with a local income tax and graduated property taxes, but that’s a more technical point in my grand scope of ideas. Go with me here.
Abolish the quangos and agencies that are the face of HMG in this country and give the greater bulk of those powers, funding and responsibilites to councils. Let them regulate the damn buses if the local population want it. Real clout, wielded by a body with a proper mandate from an engaged population. And if the council is a body with real substance and scope, I am going to be much more likely to take it seriously. And if I take it seriously, I will pay a lot more attention to what it does. I might even get involved. And so might some people with quality minds. I’ll certainly be voting (I do anyway, by the way, but an awful lot of people don’t, because they don’t see the point).
It’s a virutous circle, if it’s allowed to happen. Look at the Redcliff-Maud report of 1968 for what I think would be an excellent model of how things could be arranged. And for every authority, a proper, elected leader - call it big-man politics if you like, but how many people equate the college of government with the person of the Prime Minister? Basically, bring back the GLC.
From here, move up a level. The councils will send up broader strategic powers (say over health and education policy,railways, policing or utility regulations, that kind of thing) or big schemes (high-speed rail and broadband for example) to an English government (modelled on Wales due to the joint legal system). Councils would transfer a certain budget to England to run their operations, depending on their own needs, much like the system of federal transfers used in Germany. And because it is our councils that fund them, we will have the civic investment in that authority to make it democratically legitimate. Our councils have granted the powers and money to England to do these jobs for us, either directly through its departments or in collaboration with the councils through joint boards. It’s manifestly ours. We feel (dreadful word, but important concept coming up) ownership of government.
This body could have their assembly in Birmingham and departments in major regional cities. Keep it out of London, 40 million people don’t live there. Use Skype. Here, have a season ticket from Derby to Birmingham. Stay in a contracted Premier Inn when you’re there, then back to Derby in the morning. It’s what everyone else has to do. What’s left (the supreme court, defence, foreign office, immigration, the UK-related stuff) can go to central government. This leaves HMG far smaller, so we can lose a couple of hundred MPs. 401 members of the Commons is about right for a country of our size. The Lords can go to Manchester, like Andrew Adonis said. All 199 of them.
It goes without saying, by the way, that these bodies will all be elected by proportional representation - STV for preference. And it’s not too complicated or foreign, they use it in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Eire. I can count to five, thanks. I’d also cut back indirect taxation except on really naughty things (ciggies, booze, company cars, flash motors and porn, you know the kind of thing), simplify and hypothecate NI (again, we must feel that we own the NHS, sacred institution that it is) and have a full redrawing of the curve of income tax bands. Two bands? That’s a bit dumb. Have a bit more finesse. Also, road charging, tripartite education like they have in Germany, nationalise the utility companies and set up a proper national investment bank. But again, that’s all a bit specific and wishlist-y. Still, I think it’d be popular and it’d certainly make Britain feel like a fairer country than it does now.
It’ll take time, but think about how radically this will change our relationship to the state. It will run from the bottom up, not the top down. It’s ours, not theirs. I think civic participation would flourish. I’m an old-fashioned lefty who deeply resented David Cameron’s co-opting of true socialist beliefs in his bloody Big Society, because he just used it as a cover for cuts. If we all felt a proper sense of civic engagement at the local level, society would build itself like that anyway.
I know local government is difficult, boring and not at all sexy, but the easy, fun sexy stuff just pisses people off. It’s not the nuts and bolts of everyday life. Because if you think about it, if a government is doing its job properly, people won’t notice it’s doing anything at all.
If you’ve read this far, well done. And thanks. I don’t really expect to get a response, I know you’re a busy man, but it’s very helpful to me to get my ideas down anyway. And sorry for all the brackets, but I did think of all this on the bus.