Democratic Localism

By Spours, Ken | Soundings, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Democratic Localism


Spours, Ken, Soundings


Some on the left see only two versions of localism, but we need to discover a third.

The issue of localism is often a difficult one for some on the left, as they find themselves caught between support for a socialist, distributive and egalitarian central state and support for devolution and greater democracy. The disagreement between the 'centralisers' and the 'democrats' has usually seen the first dominate the second, and the left has gained a historical reputation for governmental centralism and weak democratic intent. Soviet state socialism represented the ami-democratic tendency in the extreme, and western social democracy, while having extended the franchise and the welfare state, exhibited a tendency towards elitism and suspicion of mass participation. New Labour perpetuated this tradition, because its political focus on managerial control and market-based choice was far greater than its commitment to greater local control and democratic participation in public services. A 'democratic hesitancy', reflected in different ways across most of the left, has thus provided acres of political space for the right to cast themselves as the new democrats who will pioneer the freedom of the people. This is the immediate political significance of debates about localism in the English context.

The left's confused and reactive stance has profound consequences, not only because of the political space it vacates to the right, but because it is evidence of a failure to understand the relationship between achieving greater democracy and greater fairness. Moreover, the 'left centralisers' have treated localism as if it is a single political phenomenon, seeing only its neoliberal variants. They fear, with some justification, that greater inequalities will result from more power being exercised at a local level, because of the retreat by central government from an equity role. Closer scrutiny suggests, however, that instead of seeing only two - neoliberal - variants of localism, it is time to discover another. My argument is that a third version has appeared over the past decade - the 'new localism' - that offers a basis from which a full democratic model can be developed.

The crisis of governance and democracy

The political interest in localism currently being shown by all the main political parties is partly a response to a deep and accumulating crisis of governance and democracy. After three decades of neoliberalism there has been an increasing crisis of political legitimacy, as people have become less deferential, while at the same time fearing insecurity and the lack of control over important aspects of their lives. In this 'post-democratic' situation, strong markets have dominated and increasingly controlled weak democracies. Furthermore, greater consumer choice has been accompanied by the erosion of political choice, as the main political parties have converged on centre ground and the right has repeatedly attacked the capacity of the state to be able to offer solutions to the crises that arrive with increasing rapidity.1

This crisis of governance and democracy has taken on a particularly acute form in the UK (or more accurately England), and New Labour has to share a large part of the blame for the breakdown in trust between the people and government. The popular hope invested in New Labour in May 1997 was squandered, particularly from the period from 2003 onwards, with the war in Iraq, 'high Blairism', the politics of spin, the building of a 'data-base state' and, eventually, the inability of Gordon Brown to signal a departure from New Labour's managerialism. It was this growing climate of authoritarianism that helped nourish the Conservatives' concept of the 'Big Society' and its version of localism. But the crisis was not only of New Labour's making; it had deeper neoliberal roots - the banking crash, the MPs' expenses scandal, the new government's austerity measures that go beyond manifesto commitments, the newspaper hacking scandal, and the recent riots in English cities - all these suggest that the relationship between people and state is further eroding. …

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