:: Article

A philosophical reframing

By John P. Houghton.


Simon Parker, Taking Power Back, Policy Press, 2015

In the final five years of the last Labour government, there were 90 re-organisations of central government departments and their agencies.

The cost of this endless round of reshuffles? Three-quarters of a billion pound. Or £780m to be precise.

Why so many changes? Why at such exorbitant cost?

In his admirably pithy style, Parker proffers a simple answer: “Centralism provides prime ministers and secretaries of state with an extraordinarily wide range of displacement activities”.

Parker gathers such examples of energy and money misspent to illustrate how the UK system of governance has delivered the worst of both worlds.

Attempts to control everything from the centre that create perverse incentives and a misguided focus on measurable outputs over meaningful outcomes.

Attempts to tackle the postcode lottery that have resulted in some of the widest inequalities in the western world.

Attempts to ensure that scandal x or failure y will never happen again thanks to the formation of a new taskforce or the introduction of inchoate legislation. Until such scandals and failures are repeated, and new ministers embark on another round of doctrinaire dirigisme.

These are not entirely new criticisms, but Taking Power Back updates the case against over-mighty centralism by explaining how Brown’s Labour and the Cameron-Clegg coalition talked the language of devolving and dispersing power, but in practice hoarded it all the more for themselves.

Parker presents his case with great lucidity and a tone reminiscent of the documentary maker Adam Curtis. Both in the use of pop-culture inflected epigrams – ‘The revolution will not be centralised’ and ‘Learning to love the postcode lottery’ are two early chapter headings – and the focus on power. “This book” he explains “is about power, and how politicians misunderstood its nature”.

Given his stature, Parker is able and willing to tackle the occasional complicity of local government in this misunderstanding of power and its uses. “Not for the first time, local government had shot it itself in the foot” he states baldy, in reference to the announcement of double-digit increases in council tax levels following the proposed removal of the central cap under Blair.

The Commonist Manifesto

As an alternative to the centralism he subjects to a thorough deconstruction, Parker proposes a new agenda of ‘commonism’. This requires “a philosophical reframing of the way in which we see ourselves in society”.

It goes beyond the narrow contractual bounds of citizenship as defined by adherence to the rule of law and the payment of taxes, and the limitations of the current government’s ‘invitation to join the government of Britain’:

Where the Big Society asked people to step in and fix the problems of a declining public sector, the commons simply asks people to do more of the things they care about, recognising that more social and civil section generally has a knock-on benefit for government in the form of enhanced social capital, reduced isolation and the unexpected benefits that flow from enabling social innovation.

Again, Parker presents an array of innovative and inspiring examples from across the UK and beyond that encapsulate the spirit of commonism. The Waiting Room in Colchester. The Rushey Green Time Bank. The Social Street movement in Bologna.

Democracy of doing

There is much to recommend this ‘democracy of doing’, but in engaging with the detail of how commonism could be implemented, the manifesto lapses into over-prescription.

The introduction of a new measure of ‘Total Social Resource’ (TSR) to replace Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would entail capturing all activities that promote social good including the “assets, time, donations and contributions from business”. As someone who works for a small business, I’d rather go about winning work and creating jobs than recording all the data I need to complete my annual TSR audit form.

In a similar manner, the description of how social outcomes could be delivered in future through “a commissioning hub, aligned with the investment plans of the local foundation, that would set out an evidence-based route map” goes beyond the high-level statement of principles offered earlier in the book into a jarring level of detail.

Parker calls ultimately for a “controlled explosion” of decentralisation. The localisation of income and corporation taxes, for example, would require ‘careful consideration’ with powers drawn down at a scale and pace that suits different localities.

Yet days after the publication of Taking Power Back, George Osborne announced the radical reform of business rates. The Chancellor described the decision to allow councils to retain locally-raised income, to the tune of £26bn, as “the biggest transfer of power to local government in living memory”.

The system Parker describes is so dysfunctional, its exhausted engineers so deluded, it can only be changed through such radical and sweeping reforms. We don’t need a controlled explosion – we need a big bang.

John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities. He tweets at @metlines

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 5th, 2015.