There are some commonly made diagnoses for the place the UK finds itself in today: stagnation, regional inequality, decaying trust, political culture war, crumbling public services. Polarisation and a tired bureaucracy have chronically infected our national institutions, and even though one party now has a commanding majority, real moral authority seems to be slipping away.
But so far no political party has seized upon the only reliable course of treatment: radical decentralisation of power, with autonomy and self-governance for communities. It’s this full transfusion, rather than a jab to keep it hobbling along, that our political body needs now.
What’s incredibly positive – and goes unnoticed – is that lots of this change is already happening. There is so much energy and ambition in the community empowerment agenda right now. Communities around the country are managing their own assets, running their own businesses, commissioning their own public services – and it’s transforming people’s lives.
But national politics has barely noticed. The political parties in this election hardly engaged with the idea of a fundamental shift of power away from the centre. And why should they? The basic fact of their influence relies on their monopoly on the national policy discussion; their longing for control of state-wide institutions and levers of power. They cannot escape the old dichotomy, bouncing endlessly back and forth from paternalist mega-statism to Wild West market fundamentalism and back again.
Their view of politics is ultimately transactional. People are customers, users, dependents, who contract with the state or with the private sector to meet their needs. Sometimes they complain. Sometimes they complain enough to push the pendulum back the other way and bring in another, different bunch of centralist administrators… and the cycle continues.
So last week we had a contest between two parties that both basically thought that pumping more money into public services is the way to make people happy. One was pretty keen on direct state ownership, one was not. Did the smaller parties offer more radicalism? Not really. And all obscured by an all-encompassing, dogmatic culture war. At the national scale this is essentially Star Wars – an ultra-simplistic fantasy world filled with self-evident heroes and moustache-twirling villains.
This polarisation can be escaped if political engagement and discussion is localised enough. Communities can try things, fail, learn, try again; find a face-to-face basis for mutual esteem and shared goals. This is rapidly becoming impossible at the scale of national politics.
National politicians must have the bravery to step away from this toxic landscape and consider the interests of their constituents. They may land on the uncomfortable truth that their own power stands in the way of the people they represent. At NLGN, we’re pushing ahead with calls for a Community Power Act – asking politicians to create the legal framework needed for communities to flourish. Through our Community Paradigm research, we are building an evidence base supported by the ground-breaking economics of Elinor Ostrom.
So whatever you feel about the election result, this is surely the moment to push forward with a completely new idea of what Westminster is for, where power really should lie, and who really has the right to take back control in the UK. We could be stronger than you think.
Simon Kaye is senior policy researcher at the New Local Government Network.