“Whatever the restrictions they face, the choices councils make are political ones”

Manchester Town Hall. Image: Getty.

How we run local communities, what services are provided and by whom, are deeply political questions. The philosophical traditions of the two main parties in Britain differ greatly on state involvement at every level: national, local and international.

So I take umbrage when people try to divide politics neatly into pragmatism and ideology. This was the argument set forth by Claire Kober, until very recently leader of Haringey Council, and the woman at the eye of the storm over the Haringey Delivery Vehicle programme to build new homes and regenerate old council properties. There are already a million articles written on that topic, so I don’t intend to go into the rights and wrongs of the case here. What concerns me is the framing of politics vs pragmatism that Kober sets out.

It is certainly the case that the left can put unreasonable demands on Labour councils. Local authorities are severely hampered both by austerity and by overbearing central restrictions: few seem to understand this when calling for illegal budget setting or non-statutory services that are impossible to deliver without outside investment.

It’s the case, too, that the reason the system is close to breaking is the pressure put on councils by the extreme ideological cuts to their funding that have crippled them since 2010.

But the opposite of unreasonable is not apolitical. Whatever the restrictions they face, the choices councils are political ones. Claire Kober describes herself as a pragmatic socialist – but as such, the people who agree with her need not just to make the case for pragmatism, but to argue why their pragmatism is socialist too.

Equally, the MPs who have declared no confidence in Northamptonshire County Council need to explain how – under their government’s ‘devolved axe’ – they would do things differently in and for their county. If they believe in letting local government be freer, leaner and less dependent on central grant money, they need to make the capitalist case for that freedom, and the winners and – inevitably – losers that competition creates. How would their national vision translate to Northamptonshire, its local challenges, demographics and needs?

But unfortunately, across the board in politics, we give very little priority to the local. This means that in general, it is not politics that's missing from most conversations about local government, but politics at the right level. Too often, litmus tests on national or international issues decide who a faction of the local party will back when it comes to council selections. In Labour, a person's view on the Middle East might well trump their vision for local service delivery. For the Tories, it's their view on Brexit, not bins, that really matters.


Voters are often the same, punishing local politicians for decisions made by national parties, seeing council elections just as referenda on the government of the day or how they think the opposition is doing. The parties reflect this by running election broadcasts on national issues or national leadership. It wins them votes, so you can understand it – but more and more, we denigrate the understanding of what local government does, who does it, what they do it for and why.

Labour councillors are not making decisions about private investment because they are ideologically wedded to the private sector. They believe, as all socialists and social democrats do, in using the state to improve the lives of the people of their boroughs. They just believe that under current circumstances, the kinds of challenges they face need far greater investment than the government is willing to provide. So, they feel they have to look to the private sector to do so.

Equally, most of the left is not opposing these decisions because they want to stop new housing being built, but because they genuinely believe there are better solutions that don’t lead to a diminishing of public stock. They are willing to trade conditions likely to lead to short term inaction for a chance at better solutions long term.

As to the Tories, they believe that a reduction in state dependency is going to be good for people in the long term. And so, they need to make the case for how that works in areas that fall short as Northamptonshire has, instead of simply playing the blame game. The party of central government and the party of local government in Northamptonshire are the same. If these MPs want to make the case that the failure there isn’t a Conservative one, they will need sharper answers than simply devolving blame.

There may well be answers that speak to both short and long term radicalism. But to find them, protagonists from both sides of Labour’s factional debate or the Conservatives national/local split will have to adopt a better, more open, understanding of where each side is coming from. If local Labour Parties can drop the fights over national issues, it might be possible to allow their shared ideology to come up with a solution that serves their community best. If Tories can work together to support local government struggling to impose national cuts, they might find better ways of delivering at each level. There may well be compromises that can be found through imagination, local action and local knowledge – but to find them, parties will have to set aside their internal differences and do the hard work of agreeing strategy and delivering for the people who elect them.

We need to put ideology back into the local government conversation. As politics has become more ideological again, it is important that the parties are able to offer their communities fierce competition over what they will do for and with them. If Capitalism or Socialism don’t work locally, they can’t work nationally. Big ideas don’t have to be played out on big stages.

 
 
 
 

This interactive map of the Swiss rail network is just really, really cool

The first train crossing the Gotthard Base Tunnel, the world's longest rail tunnel during the opening ceremony near the town of Erstfeld, Switzerland, on 1 June 2016. Image: Getty.

After 500 years of democracy all Switzerland has produced is the cuckoo clock: so said Harry Lime, Orson Welles’ character in The Third Man.

This is terribly unfair – so I’m going to leap to the defence of the proud Swiss people, and disprove Lime’s claim right now, by showing you a mind-boggling map of the country’s rail system.

Made by self-described hacker, trainspotter and map addict Vasile Coțovanu, it uses data from the federal railways organisation SSB to show the movement of trains across the country in real time. If you’re too impatient to watch the trains crawl across the map, you can speed the whole thing up. If you feel the need to follow a particular train, you can do that, too.

The map is not actually live, as such: it uses timetable data to show where trains are meant to be, so doesn’t show delays and so forth. But Swiss trains have such a reputation for punctuality that the joke is the locals set their watches to the trains – so we can be fairly sure what we’re seeing is spot on.

The map also, indirectly, shows both the physical and human geography of the country. You’d be hard pressed to find a more iconic duo than Switzerland and mountains: the country’s topography has allowed the small republic to keep out of Europe’s wars for centuries.

But as well as providing a natural barrier that would make Donald Trump go green with envy (what colour does green and orange make?), the mountains have been a huge obstacle for the engineers tasked with building the country’s rail system.

This map shows the rail network in its entirety: note the concentration of red to the north, representing the Swiss Plateau. Hemmed in to the north by the Jura Mountains and to the south by the mighty Alps, this stretch of relatively flat land was an obvious choice for settlers, and although it only covers 30 per cent of the country, two thirds of the total population lives there.

In the rest of the country, though, rail coverage really thins out. Tunnels and difficult spiral climbs are necessary for trains taking on the mountainous south.
Despite its difficulty, the route through the Alps along the Gotthard Pass has been an important trade route for centuries. It is the shortest route between the Po and Rhine Rivers, and control of it has been a key objective for the Swiss state.

Two years ago a new rail line opened along this north-south route, known as the Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT). The tunnel can be seen in the more faded red, running from Erstfeld to Biasca:

This tunnel was built quite a bit after Harry Lime’s time: he had seen it, I doubt he would have been quite so rude about Switzerland. It’s the longest and deepest rail tunnel in the world running for 57km under the Alps. At its deepest point, the GBT is 2,450m deep. This incredible feat of engineering allows faster and more frequent journies through the mountains and onto Italy.

Here you can see the 19:09 for Como go through the tunnel:

The Alps aren’t just an obstruction, though: where railway lines have managed to wind their way through you can find some of the most beautiful train journeys in the world.

The Bernina Express is the sort of old school Alpine train where you imagine you could find James Bond in the bar carriage. It travels along two World Heritage railways, the Albula and the Bernina, which are among only a handful of rail lines whose importance has been recognised by UNESCO. Sweeping past glaciers and lakes, the train goes through 55 tunnels and across a mindboggling 196 viaducts and bridges.

Here’s the 13.48 to Tirano going through the eponymous Bernina Pass:

I was thinking of asking Vasile Coțovanu, the man behind the map, to try mapping out the UK rail system in a similar way. The problem is the difference between actual running times and those timetabled is so great that any map would be less of a practical tool than a work of utopian fiction.

Let’s leave these interactive maps to a country that can build a world class rail system in the middle of a mountain range. Harry Lime, eat your heart out. 


Images: Vasile Coțovanu.