Localism in a hung parliament

A hung parliament next May is looking like a very likely prospect. But while coalition negotiations leave everything hanging in the balance, the practice of governing where it really counts will carry on.

135 days after their last national election a new coalition government has been formed in Belgium. This pales in comparison, of course, to the record breaking 535 days the country spent without a federal authority in 2010 – 11. The funny thing is, while there was a lot of international attention focussed on the absent government, for the most part things carried on pretty much as normal.

In May 2010 the UK experienced 6 days of limbo, without a national government while coalition negotiations went on behind closed doors. There was media furore and questions about the ensuing instability and uncertainty. The people demanded to know “who will have a firm hand on the tiller to guide us through difficult times?”

Except they didn’t. In reality even strong central government is remarkably ineffective at doing the things people need. It is local government that runs the services we rely on, provides leadership and engages with communities. With Westminster in limbo, local government carries on doing what it does best.

Next May we are likely to experience another indecisive general election and the accompanying period with “no government”. There is huffing and puffing over who will hold the balance of power, whether minority government is more likely, and an accompanying fear of Parliamentary paralysis. This doesn’t address how our democracy really works, however, and it is a poor framing for the debate about how we want to be governed.

As expected, devolution, decentralisation, and localism were prominent themes at this year’s party conferences. There was a yawning gap between most of the national party politicians and those who work at the local level, however.

Our conference discussions with councillors and officers demonstrated local government innovating and delivering for their communities. A prime example is the public health agenda. Councils like Southwark and the Greater Manchester Authorities have been doing really interesting things that join up previously disparate service areas in ways that both save money in the long run and actually improve people’s lives. These are important, practical things, which make a real difference.

On the other side of the coin, there was public debate about the West Lothian question. But this misses the point entirely. Rather than agonising over new constitutional arrangements and cobbling together additional layers of governance, why not give real power and freedom to local government to do what they do best. A recent LGiU survey showed that 96% of local government leaders wanted devolved spending power, 84% wanted increased freedom to borrow and spend and 79% wanted the ability to raise local taxes.

Decentralisation is discussed in the narrow terms allowed by “English votes for English laws” because of a myopic obsession with the Westminster model. Westminster is increasingly irrelevant in people’s everyday lives, and yet we keep trying to recreate, replicate and reassert an obsolete structure.

Another localism discussion, heard around the conference centres, was on the “West Ealing question”: How is it right for London MPs to vote on transport issues in the rest of the country, when London transport issues have been devolved to the Mayor. The question we should really be asking is: “Why are MPs voting on local transport issues in the first place?”

In the event of a hung parliament next May, there will be speculation and excitement while fraught negotiations ensue. Local government will keep on governing, however, and I wonder how long it would really take before things fall apart. 6 days? 135 days? I’m for breaking that 535 day record.

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