Monday, 17 November 2008

Baby P and local vs. national

Here is an important philosophical issue that keeps arising in politics, but never seems to get any nearer to being resolved: the tension between local decision-making and central government control.

I am among those who have argued in the past for a large dose of decentralisation from Whitehall and Westminster on those issues that can better be decided locally. This used to be long-standing Liberal Party policy. In more recent times, the Tories have also used the rhetoric of decentralisation (although in reality Mrs Thatcher was a great centraliser, the abolition of the GLC and the metropolitan authorities being only the most egregious example).

The Labour Party, by contrast, has tended (with some exceptions) towards a centralist view, both on the old left and among social democrats. I remember this being eloquently expressed by Neil Kinnock when he was fiercely opposing Welsh devolution in the 1970s.

The public (led by the gutter press) seems to be completely at sixes and sevens on this question. On the one hand, they seem to like the idea that "the man in Whitehall" does NOT know best. A good example of where I agree with them is the recent grotesque micro-management by the Department of Transport of local railway services all over England (though not Scotland and Wales), even down to how many carriages a particular train should have. Some of the railway franchises have been absurdly tightly specified.

On the other hand, when some local autonomy is granted, leading inevitably to different outcomes in different places, a huge clamour goes up against the "postcode lottery". That very phrase implies an expectation that everything ought to be identical everywhere -- the complete opposite of the local accountability that people say they want.

In theory, the trick is supposed to be to locate each sphere of decision-making at the most appropriate level for the function in question. This is what the EU calls "subsidiarity". The trouble is, when it comes down to it, how do you reach any consensus about what that level is?

Steve Richards ponders this question in relation to the dreadful events in Haringey:

In the abstract, the political fashion is for localism, especially in the Conservative Party. It is a common theme of the Tories: let a thousand flowers bloom! Central government should keep out of local matters even if things go wrong!

I have heard shadow cabinet members argue that, when in government, if things go wrong locally, they must declare that the crisis is not their responsibility. Yet look what happens when a single local story makes the national front pages. Cameron leapt in and demanded that the government acted. Within hours the government did act. The only issue was whether it should have done so earlier. No one was arguing that this was a matter for Haringey council and that it was up to the voters to kick out the ruling administration at the next local election.

As Steve Richards points out, giving the London Borough of Haringey the local autonomy to decide its own affairs has also meant that that same council was free to make calamitous mistakes. Most mistakes by local authorities do not get as much publicity as this one, but any reader of Private Eye's  "Rotten Boroughs" column knows that there is no shortage of examples of gross mismanagement, even -- or perhaps especially -- by big councils with their hugely overpaid, self-important chief executives.

And yet we do not, I think, want to abolish local government: on the contrary. One step forward might be to improve local accountability by electing local authorities by STV, so that there would not be such a tendency for some of them to be a permanent one-party state, as Haringey is for Labour.

Then again, can it seriously be claimed that the quality of decision-making at national government level is all that much better, when we consider all the monumental cocks-up that have been made in recent times?

Let them eat cake

I popped into Waitrose yesterday to get a few odds and sods, not including booze as we had enough of that for now.

Looking at my half-full trolley, I guessed I had probably spent about 40 quid, or 50 at the outside.

Here is the bill: £92.95. I thought the lady at the checkout must have made a mistake, but no, it all adds up.

Happily, the boyf and I are on reasonably good pensions. How the poor are supposed to manage, I have no idea.

Railway poster of the day

This is from the pre-1948 LNER (London and North Eastern Railway). I remember my mother, who grew up in east London between the wars, saying it used to be known as the Late and Never Early Railway -- a reminder that public moaning about the railways did not begin with nationalisation.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

An amazing night; a wonderful day

I hadn't originally intended to stay up all night for the US election results. But I'm glad I did. 

It was a marvellous result. Obama's acceptance speech was inspiring and, I think, an historic moment. Today we can dare to feel a little bit more hopeful and optimistic about the world.

The trouble is that, despite all the understandable rhetoric, the extreme right has not actually gone away. If we needed any reminder, it came this morning on The Daily Politics with the appearance on Andrew Neil's sofa of the appallingly nasty Anne Coulter. 

47% of the electorate, which is still after all nearly half, voted against Obama. Some of them are the people who were energised by the ludicrous Sarah Palin. 

These people could be incredibly dangerous. It is a measure of how deluded they are that some of them believe in all seriousness that Obama is a communist. (Actually, watching one or two of his policy speeches, I am tempted to see him in European terms as more or less a Christian Democrat.)

I fear that these lunatics will now be so angry that at least one of them will try to kill Obama. I just hope his security people will be up to the mark and not let him take any rash decisions, as Kennedy did when he rejected advice to ride with the bullet-proof lid on his car in Dallas in November 1963.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Plus ca change ...

Nice little snippet in Richard Rudin's blog:

What a change from when we were last all together and today. I mean, in 1973, there was an unpopular Republican President in the USA, trying to extricate himself from a very unpopular war, there was a major economic crisis looming at home, Bruce Forsyth and Doctor Who dominated Saturday night television, Terry Wogan was doing the breakfast show on Radio 2…oh, hang on!