Sunday 13 January 2008

Lib Dem localism vs. Tory localism

I arrived late at the one-day conference and missed the big speech (and the drinkable tea). Having heard what Nick Clegg said about public services, I’ve been checking out the blogs this evening and – rather to my surprise, actually – they seem to be as enthusiastic as I am.

Of course, there are difficult details that will have to be hammered out about the Free Schools policy – letting local people set up local schools, under local authority oversight – but it is still for me a transformative moment. It is, at last, a genuinely Liberal policy on public services, and (I might add) badly needed in my own area in north Croydon, where children are corralled into too few places in mainly indifferent schools managed by a cash-strapped, unimaginative Tory borough.

There have been blogs in the last few hours pointing to the experience of Summerhill and – more relevant this – the Hartland Small School. We might also learn from the Danish small schools movement. Taken together, this is exactly the stuff we need to put flesh on the otherwise empty phrase ‘people’s politics’.

But we have been late arriving: Michael Gove has already spelled out related ideas for the Tories, which leaves us with a problem – how do we distinguish Lib Dem localism from Tory localism, without falling back so boringly on claiming they don’t mean it? This is what I would suggest:

1. Cameron localism is the apotheosis of the quango state: his new schools are not knitted into other networks of local schools, but run by a Whitehall department, as the academies are now. This is not localism; it’s centralisation.

2. Embed what we are saying about localism in a much more fundamental critique of public services. Why don’t they work? Why are Beveridge’s Five Giants still alive and well? Partly because of centralisation, partly because frontline staff and customers have been so side-lined – but partly also because only human-scale services, based on relationships between professional and client, create sustainable change. Yet Cameron is advocating Gershon style cuts to exactly these aspects.

3. Link public service centralisation to economic centralisation: the narrowing of choice to a few giant corporate supermarkets, waste contractors, etc. And do so in such a way that at least one of Cameron’s factions finds it impossible to follow us into radical anti-trust legislation.

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