Localisation and the Blame Game – heads we win, tails you lose

Andy Coulson may have gone, but the evidence of the spin-s dark arts at work permeates the Coalition government’s strategy. Before the election both Tories and Liberal Democrats made much of the fact they were going to be open and honest with voters about the effects of the cuts they were proposing (as opposed to Labour, and especially Gordon Brown, who were clearly in denial). Since the election, the tone has changed dramatically and now any cuts to ‘front-line’ services is clearly someone else’s incompetence and not the result of their dash to slash.

First, blame the previous lot for everything and use the word “mess” as frequently as possible. The “it’s worse than we thought” ploy has already run it’s course (despite the fact that by the time the Coalition was formed it clearly was better than we thought during the Election – the deficit had declined, not increased). But the “it’s another fine mess Labour’s gotten us into” one will run and run.

Next, claim that a large part of the problem was profligate public spending which was completely out of control. Never mind that, as I have constantly pointed out, Labour’s spending up to the financial crisis was not high by historic standards, nor was the deficit. Their problem was a failure to tax enough to pay for it, creating a small structural deficit which was, as it has turned out, more of a political than an economic problem because it opened the door to blaming them for the whole subsequent deficit. In reality 8% of the 11% (of GDP) deficit was caused by the financial crash, not by Labour’s spending.
The “we have to cut because of the deficit” line sits nicely with the “and we were spending too much anyway”, with the implication that if anyone cuts frontline services it is not because they don’t have the money but because they are incompetent.

This approach is being applied with avegeance in the ‘localisation’ agenda. Local councils and police forces have already had the “it’s your fault if frontline services are cut” line applied to them. This despite the fact that local government, especially, did far better at efficiency savings than central government between 2004 and 2010. Ignoring this, central government concentrates on the salaries of a few local authority chief executive’s salaries or why they are not sharing back-office services, neither of which will make anything more than a tiny dent in the problems.

The whole reform agenda – including devolution to GP consortia – neatly continues this trend. If – some will say when – things go badly wrong in the NHS it’ll be blamed on the GPs and/or the new managers of their consortia, not the Ministers who designed the system, if designed is the right word.

Moreover ‘localisation’ clearly means for this government localisation to anyone but local government and is creating potentially dysfunctional fragmentation in local services. Some interesting partnerships between local authorities and Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) had emerged over recent years, but these will disappear along with PCTs. A group of local government managers I spoke to recently felt that the new GP Consortia and going to be too many and too internally focussed to be open to serious partnership working, and they may well be right. Other services like schools and the police authorities are also being dragged further away from local government control or influence, whilst some others are being ‘nationalized’, like benefits payments.

The politics of this is interesting, because there are large numbers of Tory and Liberal Democrat local councillors who will not agree with this evisceration strategy for local government. The internal politics of both parties are going to be “interesting” as the impact of all these changes unfold.

All of this adds up to a probable grand disruption of local attempts to address social problems, with local government effectively being disempowered in practice whilst appearing to be more responsible because of localisation rhetoric. Some councils may be able to step up to this challenge, but they are likely to be a minority. The Americans have a saying that “all politics is local”. There are obviously those in Westminster and Whitehall who are hoping that the politics of the cuts is gong to be subject to this rule, and it’ll be local politicians that get the blame for failing services, not them.

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