Riffing on Michael Gove and his Grammar Schoo….oops sorry, his Academy Schools, it raises the issue of the role, function, status and efficacy of local government. Decentralised government is supposedly one of the shiboleths of Tory thought. Cameron’s emphasis on localism and the ‘big society’ was the principle narrative of his first 2 years in office…. And in the name of localism Cameron has moved to complete Thatcher’s project of entirely emasculating local government.
The management of schools may have more freedom to manage a wider range of budget elements (or be burdened with more managerial, administrative and logistical responsibilities as many heads see it).
But the people living in the locale where the school is situated lose all power to influence what goes on in the school. The parents (i.e. the customers) do have influence, possibly greater influence, but the local population have lost all influence.
Local Councils used to decide on the level of local taxes. These were supplemented by a share of national income tax in the form of a government remittance. Using these funds the councils would set the policy and then deliver a number of local services including education and health. This was stopped by Thatcher.
Local government means locally determined priorities that will by definition be different. One local authority may decide to spend more on the arts than another etc. This local variation has been redefined as a problem, as a ‘postcode lottery’, i.e. you may be arbitrarily denied certain services simply because of where you live and this is presented in the media as if it is manifestly unjust. But this is simply not true…
(1) The variety in the type of services available in a locale are not decided arbitrarily. They are decided by elected representatives of wards who collectively make decisions on behalf of their constituents and based on local priorities.
(2) It is quite possible for local citizens to influence the decisions of local councillors but this assumes that local citizens are politically engaged.
(3) The democratic legitimacy of local government rests on the notion of ‘community’ and politically engaged citizens rather than the individual service user making self-interested choices (read customer).
The so-called ‘postcode lottery’ is not a bad thing it shows that local democracy is happening as it should. Many people complain about the homogeneity of the globalised High Street; everywhere looks the same, sells the same things from the same shops. Culture has become homogenised, regional dialects have all but disappeared and even accents are becoming levelled out. Was it a ‘postcode lottery’ to be born in Cornwall and grow up eating pasties as opposed to jellied eels in East London? Are local traditions and customs stifling symbols of an insular and oppressive past or inspiring examples of human cultural diversity?
One of the reasons New Labour continued Thatchers attack on local government was because the ultra- professional ( read managerialist) Blairites had no confidence that even Labour local councillors could not be relied upon to tow the party line i.e. to do as they were told, because they owed their primary allegiance to the local electorate, rather than the central party. The same is true of Cameron; the problem with locally accountable Education Authorities is that they will naturally enough more concerned with pleasing their local electorate than pleasing London. So they have to be rendered powerless before the centre can assert their will in the regions.
But surely in a democracy local politicians refusing to do what they are told by London is a good thing? Professional party politicians who owe their career to towing the party line are a bad thing! Why would we think that local issues will be more satisfactorily resolved to the satisfaction of local people by a locally unaccountable Nation State administered by professional Civil Servants in London? in fact such an idea is supposedly the complete antithesis of mainstream anti-statist Tory thought. And yet this move to disempower local government was started by Thatcher, continued by a right-wing New Labour government who accepted most of her ideological positions and is being completed by the nastiest little Tory shit since Tebbit, Michael Gove.
Under the Academy School system central government will completely control the way education budgets are spent and as we know ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. This gives central government complete control of what goes on in schools and how much money is spent and on what. Local people, apart from the parents of children currently in the school, will have no formal influence on the school whatsoever.
This may or may not be a good thing but it is undoubtedly part of a process started by Thatcher to end the capacity of local government to make policy decisions at odds with the National government.
The trick of the spin has been to present the disempowering of local government and the centralising of power in the National State as if it were a policy to devolve power. Genius!