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We are currently witnessing a renaissance of thinking about localism, local democracy, and participative and democratic shaping of public services on the left. This draws on the early labour movement’s emphasis on self-help and localism, as well as on critiques of the big, centralised, bureaucratic state mounted by the ‘new left’ in the late 1960s and 1970s. Revisiting those critiques suggests the potential of this approach today to deliver successful public services while also dispersing the power of the state.

Localism has a long heritage in the Labour party and wider labour movement. A key belief of the radical tradition in the nineteenth century was that reform could be enacted at the local level, and this belief flowed into the labour movement and the Labour party.

There was much emphasis, in the first four decades of the Labour party’s existence, on improving conditions at a local level using the institutions of local democracy; important local politicians like Peter Lee, a leading figure in the Durham Miners’ Association and Durham County Council in the interwar period, threw themselves into local politics as the place to find solutions to local problems.

In the same period, guild socialism, with its most prominent advocate, G.D.H. Cole, provided an intellectual blueprint for a socialism built on a decentralised web of cooperatives and democratically-controlled workplaces, and a vibrant local democracy.

From a local to national frame

This agenda never disappeared entirely, but it’s fair to say that between the 1940s and 1970s localism was superseded by a mainly national focus. Two of the Attlee governments’ greatest achievements were the creation of the welfare state (which delivered standardised same provision across the country), and the nationalised industries (which were run in a highly centralised fashion).

Indeed, a new book by David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History, suggests that one of the fundamental characteristics of the mid-twentieth century period was that both main parties thought in basically national terms – about the economy, as well as about public services, nationalised industries, and welfare.

The Labour left insisted that unless welfare was universal and national, different provision in different places would undermine the principle of equality. And T.H. Marshall’s important idea of ‘social citizenship’ bolstered this view: if people’s rights as social citizens varied from place to place, they could hardly be called equal citizens.

Paths of resistance

But from the late 1960s onwards, there was an increasing variety of critiques of the (national) welfare state (and of nationalised industries). The welfare state was criticised by a range of actors from the ‘new left’ for its bureaucratic nature, centralised and top-down management. Feminists and Black activists criticised it for discriminating against women and Black people. Disabled activists showed how it disempowered and medicalised them.

These groups argued for radical changes to the welfare state that would tackle these inequalities. They often organised their own alternatives, like Saturday schools for Black children, groups where disabled people could represent their own interests, and Centres for Independent Living. Community activists showed that when people were given the chance to start, run and shape public services, those services would be more responsive and more successful; they revolutionised nursery provision in some areas, and set up housing co-operatives to direct inner-city renewal along the lines that local communities wanted.

While most of those involved in these movements saw themselves as being on the left, they came from an array of political positions – from anarchist to liberal to socialist to social democratic. Though many were supporters of the Labour party, they also spent much time critiquing Labour’s actions in local government, and developing small-scale, local alternatives.

What all these critiques and alternatives pointed to were ways of delivering public services and taking decisions about local areas that were more localised, more responsive, less bureaucratic, and which involved people more. This had to be done differently in the case of different services and different decisions, but the overarching principles were the same: localism, participation and democratic engagement.

It was an approach that had something in common with the radical self-help ethos of the early labour movement, but which still demanded much of the state. While it could seem like a modest challenge to the social democratic state, the demand for participation and decentralisation was in fact profoundly disruptive to established ways of delivering public services.

What happened, though, in the late 1970s, was not a rethinking of the centralised state, but the advent of Thatcherism; over the next three decades public service delivery became, in general, not less, but far more centralised.

The ‘postcode lottery’

There is a clear tension between the agenda of localism, democratisation and decentralisation of power, and the current obsession with uniform nationwide delivery of public service provision. The Oxford English Dictionary has the first recorded use of the term ‘postcode lottery’ in 1995, and from the mid-1990s onwards it became a potent phrase in British politics.

Advocates of more localism and decentralisation on the left have taken on the argument about ‘postcode lotteries’ from several angles. First, localism does not mean a complete lack of national standards: there should be minimum expectations for core services – health, education, and so on.

Second, it’s important to note that at the end of several decades where the trend was towards national standardisation, Britain was not a country with egalitarian service provision – or outcomes (see, for example, the Marmot Review of health outcomes in 2010). The benefits of services tailored to particular areas’ needs outweighs what is lost.

Finally, the key argument for the left should be not about whether centralised or localised direction of public services is best; rather, it should be about the funding necessary to deliver high quality services.

Localism cannot work without a fair system of funding for local government. The left has been making this argument for over a century: in 1921 George Lansbury, a committed localist, led the Poplar Rates Rebellion, which led to the imprisonment of thirty local councillors. The Poplar rebels demanded that local taxation receipts be shared out between richer and poorer boroughs of London, so that the poorer would be able to fund their higher needs for welfare spending.

Local government must be adequately funded, and funds must be distributed in a fair way between richer and poorer local authorities. Otherwise a localist agenda can be merely a way for central government to push impossibly difficult decisions about spending cuts onto the local authorities in the poorest areas. This is what the current austerity programme means. Any left-wing agenda for localism and democratisation must address this.

Consumers or citizens?

The developing obsession with the idea of the ‘postcode lottery’ (particularly invoked in the case of cancer treatment) must be seen in the context of developing ideas about public services in the 1990s. This was a decade when users of public services were increasingly recast as ‘consumers’ – as in John Major’s infamous ‘cones hotline’.

This recasting of public services as consumer goods was part of Major’s attempt to move on from a Thatcherite aversion to the welfare state, while also responding to some of the criticisms of the welfare state’s unresponsive, bureaucratic character that had been so prominent in the 1970s. But constructing users as ‘consumers’ reinforced concern with universal national standards at the expense of thinking about how public services relate to communities and to citizenship. This is a problem.

Where people make choices about public services as citizens and members of a community, they come up with different – and better – ideas than when thinking as individual consumers, as Claudia Chwalisz’s work on participatory democracy has shown. Today, there is a renaissance of thinking about localism, local democracy, and participative and democratic shaping of public services and decision-making, which picks up on some of the left’s earlier ideas about democratising and decentralising power.

Not every public service will be appropriate for this treatment, and different parts of the state and welfare provision will require different approaches. Some areas, like the provision of drugs on the NHS, are so politically sensitive that any significant shift away from National Institute for Health and Care Excellent guidelines would be likely to provoke outrage.

But services like housing, childcare and social care are already provided with significant local variation and, in many areas, not particularly successfully. Foregrounding the principles of localism, participation and democracy in developing these services could make them more responsive to local needs and more popular.

Where it is appropriate, localism and democratisation can have – and have had – striking successes. For example, the Blue New Deal programme run by the New Economics Foundation has worked with coastal communities around the UK to develop policies to improve the local economy and environment. Hilary Cottam’s work to transform welfare services through empowering users to take decisions about which professionals will be involved and how budgets will be spent rests on similar principles.

Done properly, an agenda focused on localising and democratising public services wherever possible holds powerful possibilities. It offers a chance to move beyond stale debates about state v. market, putting community and citizenship instead at the heart of how we think about public services and welfare.