Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

The ideology of localism

Duncan Bowie on the origins of the ideology


any commentators on the left have been surprised both at the speed  at which the Coalition government has introduced radical reforms and the extent to which 'localism', and 'the big society' have become the main mantra of the Coalition's approach to governance. While there has been considerable discussion as to what 'the big society' actually means, and how it is different from Compass's ' the Good Society, and some explanation may be found in the review of Jesse Norman's The Big Society (Chartist 249), there is perhaps less awareness of the basis of the new ideology of 'localism'.

Part of the history of both the 'new society' and 'localism' lies with New Labour. Tony Blair's perspective on responsible citizenship derived from his reading in his student days, before he discovered the Labour Party. This included the moral philosophy of the Scottish philosopher John McMurray, who in his 1935 work on The Creative Society and his 1961 study of Persons in Relation, studied the relationship of the individual to society. Blair was later to discover the writings of the American sociologist Amitai Etzioni, who in his 1963 Spirit of Community and his 1968 book The Active Society, promoted a form of neighbourhood based communitarianism.

Community engagement 

Blair's perspective on communities and responsible and active citizenship was to feed into a new focus on community engagement in a number of New Labour's regeneration programmes. Firstly, with the 1998 New Deal for Communities programme and then with the National Strategy on Neighbourhood Renewal published by the Social Exclusion Unit in 2000. By 2001, there was a new focus on placemaking and 'liveability' while the Cabinet Office set up a voluntary sector and social enterprise support unit. The Home Office in 2004 undertook an active citizenship initiative, established a Civic Renewal unit and tried to build up relationships with faith communities. The Department of Communities and Local Government in parallel initiated a community cohesion programme. Blair's own view was set out in a speech he gave in Croydon in April 2001 at the launch of the 'liveability' initiative:  

“Tackling these problems requires local control and local solutions. Central government's role is much more limited. It is to provide seed corn funding, to get the regulations right, to give local government the freedoms and support they need and to give these issues the political profile they deserve. For neighbourhood renewal to succeed, individuals have also to take responsibility for the environment in which they live. Part of expecting more responsible behaviour means not tolerating irresponsible behaviour – the yob culture that intimidates so many people. Above all they will be local. A problem in one neighbourhood may not be an issue in the next. It is no good officials in Whitehall , or even the Town Hall, telling people what is needed in their street.”

A number of New Labour politicians started promoting neighbourhood based approaches to policy – Hazel Blears wrote a pamphlet on Communities in Control for the Fabian Society in 2003 and Nick Raynsford and Yvette Cooper both contributed to the Smith Institute's Making Sense of Localism in 2004. Localist approaches were also promoted by Demos, whose Director Geoff Mulgan worked for Tony Blair between 1997 and 2004, and then by the IPPR, whose director Matthew Taylor succeeded Mulgan at No 10 as Blair's policy director. Both were to return to the world of think tanks, Mulgan to the Young Institute, Taylor to the RSA. By the end of the Blair regime, with the Sustainable Communities Act and the establishment of local Sustainable Community Partnerships and Strategies, a localist agenda was embedded within New Labour thinking and programmes. Although these were not necessarily dominant in a governance regime that still included a wide range of centrally determined targets and a command mechanism that was continued and to some extent reinforced in Brown's brief premiership. The concepts of area based budgeting and 'total place' were introduced in the 2009 budget.

Influential resistance

Throughout the Blair period, there was a growing but not necessarily influential resistance to increasing centralisation of government. Especially the disempowerment of democratically elected local government and the increasing power given to Quangos, agencies that in practice were neither autonomous nor non-governmental – but tightly controlled by their sponsoring departments. In 1995, the Campaign for Local Democracy was established by the journalist Simon Jenkins, who in 2003 published a pamphlet Big Bang Localism for the new think tanks of the libertarian right – Policy Exchange and Localis. These two think tanks were to become the key promoters of the new approach.

The critique of centralism

The critique of centralism was not initially seen as a  prerogative of the right. The 2003 Policy Exchange pamphlet on the Decline and Fall of Local Democracy was actually jointly published with the New Economics Foundation and was co-authored by Tony Travers of the LSE who has acted as a relatively neutral commentator rather than an ideologue. 

The approach was soon taken up by the Conservative Party, with two members of the party's policy unit, Greg Clark and James Mather editing in 2003 a critique of central government control, targets, regional government and conflicting centrally driven initiatives in Total Politics: The Failures of the Command State . Clark is now Decentralisation Minister, taking the Localism Bill through the parliamentary process.

There is also a history within the Liberal Democrats of an interest in localism – after all the Liberal party is primarily a federation of local parties, whose policy positions may diverge quite widely. A recent manifestation of their approach is in the volume of essays on Reinventing the State: Social Liberalism for the 21st Century edited by Duncan Brack, Richard Grayson and David Howarth (2007). This includes sections on 'Decentralising the State' and 'Constraining the State', including an essay by Chris Huhne MP on 'The Case for Localism: The Liberal Narrative', which argues, based on comparative European data, that decentralisation does not necessarily produce variation in service standards or inequality, and that decentralisation increases democratic accountability which is a precondition for service improvement.

The case for localism

The case for localism is perhaps set out most clearly in the Conservative Party's 2009 Green Paper – Control Shift: Returning Power to Local Communities. The basic argument is that Britain has become one of the most centralised countries in the developed world and that the assumption that Whitehall knows best and that only uniformity can guarantee fairness is false. The paper argues that technological advances had opened up a new world of power and opportunities for people and communities and that civic and social organisations should be freed up from government control. The paper contends that the regional tier of government, the regional assembles, were established by central government to control local affairs.

The objectives of the Conservative Party proposals were to give local communities a share in local growth, to free up local government from central control, to give people more power over local government, to give local people more ability to determine spending priorities and to remove the tier of regional government

Nick Boles, Director of the Policy Exchange and now an MP argued in his book Which Way's Up (reviewed in Chartist 248) for double devolution – passing power from Whitehall to local authorities, but also passing power from Local Authorities direct to local communities. He believed that local communities should be given the power and freedom to take charge of their own destinies. He also saw voluntary organisations as 'the glue that binds communities together'. 

David Cameron, in his Big Society speech on 18th May 2010, put his case for localism: “We want to give citizens, communities and local government the power and information they need to come together, solve the problems they face and build the Britain they want. We want society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form the fabric of so much of our everyday lives – to be bigger and stronger than ever before. Only when people and communities are given more power and take more responsibility can we achieve fairness and opportunity for all. Building this Big Society isn't just the responsibility of just one or two departments. It is the responsibility of every department of Government, and the responsibility of every citizen too. Government on its own cannot fix every problem. We are all in this together. We need to draw on the skills and expertise of people across the country as we respond to the social, political and economic challenges Britain faces”.

The Localism Bill

When the Localism Bill was published on 13th December 2010 , the Government press statement claimed under the heading 'From Big Government to Big Society', that 'the Big Society is what happens whenever people work together for the common good. It is about achieving our collective goals in ways that are more diverse, more local and more personal. The best contribution that central government can make is to devolve power, money and knowledge to those best placed to find the best solutions to local needs: elected local representatives, frontline public service professionals, social enterprises, charities, co-ops, community groups, neighbourhoods and individuals.'

New Labour's role in developing the concept of localism rests on the popular appeal of the notion 'local people know best', that is that local people should decide what happens in their area. Labour spokespersons in the new parliament are struggling to present a critique of the Government's legislative proposals. In the second reading debate on 17th January, many Labour MPs felt obliged to start their contribution with 'I support localism but...' Insufficient attention is being paid to the negativities of localism – that not all communities are equally resourced and empowered, that not all individuals identify with specific geographical neighbourhoods and that without some policy decisions and resource investment decisions being made at a strategic level, neighbourhood based decision making can only reinforce spatial inequalities.