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Andy Burnham has offended Joe Anderson, Mayor of Liverpool, by suggesting that he should be mayor of Greater Manchester because, unlike local government people like Joe Anderson, he understands the NHS.
There can be plenty of sentences that begin with the words ‘Andy Burnham has offended’. Like Jim Murphy, who’s offended Momentum by out-manouvering their preferred candidate for Labour’s NEC (which is like being out-manouvered by a fish on a bicycle in a multi storey carpark) Burnham resembles a hard pressed regional sales manager for the paint section of a DIY superstore rather than a charismatic leader. In older times leaders would be portrayed in various poses on horseback, the position of the horse explaining whether they died at peace or in battle; an equine statue of Burnham would commemorate him by having the horse posed with its hoof in its mouth and the reins slack around its neck as Burnham posed for a photo-op.
Like Murphy, who also uses football to emphasize his down to earth approach to life, Burnham has the niche popularity and deftness of touch of a Partick Thistle centre half hoofing the ball into the empty seats behind the goal while looking in entirely the opposite direction. Hence the clumsiness of Burnham’s attempt to assert that what Greater Manchester needs is someone like him rather than a local leader who knows the patch and knows local government. A wiser and more diligent politician would have spotted the obvious rebuttal, that he may be an expert on the NHS (at least in his own humblebragging mind) but that doesn’t mean he knows how to get the bins emptied or the streets cleaned, or how to make the buses run on time.
However,the clumsiness of Burnham and the half hearted way he’s asserted his entitlement, as a former minister, to be taken seriously as elected mayor presumptive masks a deeper malaise on the left. It simply doesn’t know what to say about the root and branch dismantling of local government that has been underway since the mid 1980s. That’s because, arguably, the left in England has no social historians, no historians of the way in which English and Welsh local government was built on a rational basis from the mid nineteenth century. A consequence is that, when government has tinkered and interfered for the most banal or corrupt of reasons, it has had no counter argument rooted in anything more than immediate political advantage.
That was the case in the 1980s, when, in a tantrum of spite against the GLC, Margaret Thatcher abolished all the regional authorities covering Britain’s metropolitan areas. Even by the standards of a woman who sank an obsolete cruiser to make a political point (the General Belgrano) it was an astonishingly bad decision. For sure, Labour politicians could argue against the decision from functional or even opportunistic positions, but so bad had local govenment been in the preceding twenty years, beset by corruption and its easy seduction by the worst architects and town planners, that it put up a pathetic fight.
Roll forward ten years and, for entirely political reasons, the government introduced compulsory competitive tendering had reduced local government to another messy, inadequate shambles of internal markets, internal clients and contractors and a tyranny of quantity surveyors and accountants conspiring to make services harder to deliver and easier to privatize. Again, the left, bereft of any understanding of what local government was for, could criticize but not oppose or propose alternatives. Even when Blair came to power, CCT was ended not because of a belief in local government, but because the government believed it had better ways of whipping local government into line.
The nadir of the incoherence of the left about local government came with the abortive attempts to introduce regional government during Blair’s second term in office. To say the case for regional assemblies of dubious provenance, to be peopled by the kind of apparachiks who make Andy Burnham believe in his own importance, was badly made, is like suggesting that Caligula did his own reputation no favours. In the aftermath of the rejection of regional assemblies the Blair government began a piecemeal re-organization of local government in areas where they thought they could get away with it, precipitating a fratricidal struggle, in places like Durham and Northumberland, that still has consequences today. Labour leaders of competing local authorities spent months on trains to and from London trying to explain why someone else should be abolished, not them, without any better argument than naked self interest. In the end, the ministers were persuaded not by fine words but by which authority best exaggerated the savings they could make and minimized the costs and havoc they would cause. The left, the thoughtful, wise, well intentioned left were entirely silent, for fear they would either offend their friends or reveal their ignorance, because they could not make a principled decision either.
Roll forward to 2016 and the shambles that is the Northern Powerhouse, and the intentions of this government are at least clear. The tradition of local government legislation, from the 1830s to the 1970s was rooted in rational attempts to produce a clear and comprehensible system of local government. It began by sorting out boundaries, by ending the feudal accidents of exclaves (so that Bedlingtonshire became part of Northumberland, not Durham, for instance) and moved into defining clases of local uthorities on the basis of the needs of their areas. Where there were exceptions the process was clear; a corporation could apply to parliament for pwoers, and parliament would decide.
The pinnacle of this was the final general re-organization of local government on a national scale, conceived in the 1960s and implemented in the 1970s. For sure, it was a series of compromises that produced some of the most unlovely local government area names ever, but it was a system with a rationale and a purpose.
By contrast the secreta nd secretive negotiations over the Northern Powerhouse between council leaders and George Osborne’s civil servants reflect not the will of parliament, but the power of the crown in parliament, the executive arm concealing its purpose and intentions from scrutiny. It is as if all the thinking and parliamentary debating of the golden years from the 1830s to the 1970s never existed, and local government is now about the crown negotiating local deals with the local magnates who in turn have to submit to the crown and deliver their side of the bargain.
There’s a word for that. Feudalism.
The new barons, whether they be Joe Anderson or Andy Burnham, know exactly the deal they’re striking. They lack the clout of a London baron like Sadiq Khan, but they are in turn more powerful than who ever eventually becomes the baron of the frozen north east, and will receive more powers as a result. This is local government reform for the Game of Thrones generation, a shabby set of corrupt and corrupting deals that speak clearly of the contempt for democracy of those behind them.
The left desperately needs a new theory of what local government is for, and whose side it is on if it is to be able tor esist what is, effectively the destruction of local democracy altogether.