Bring back Chamberlain, Herbert and Red Ken

7th February 1997 at 00:00
As prospective Conservative candidates prepare their election manifestos, speculation centres on what they will say about the single currency. Equally important, however, is what they will say about education.

There are still many Conservative candidates, perhaps a majority, who would like to remove education entirely from local authorities, perhaps by funding all schools directly from the centre. Were they to succeed, the end of local government could not be far off. For a local authority would then become primarily a residuary body, a repository of those services that no one else could be bothered to provide, together with services such as refuse collection, street-cleaning and local roads. But there would be no point in mounting the whole paraphernalia of elections just to decide who sweeps the streets or collects the refuse.

How has local government come to this pass? Why, during the 1980s and 1990s, was it unable to resist centralisation? Local government has been like the dog in the Sherlock Holmes story that failed to bark in the night.

The trouble is that local authorities are democratic institutions that have been unable to engage the demons. With less than 50 per cent of the eligible electorate voting in local elections, do they lack a mandate to resist the depredations of the centre? How can they win back popular support? If they are to survive, they must ruthlessly examine long-inherited practices and discard any that stand in the way of achieving a rapport with the people. Perhaps the most durable of these inherited practices is the committee system.

Local government in England has been organised on the committee system since the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. In 1835, of course, and for many years after that, party politics was hardly known in local government. Now, however, most local authorities are run on party lines. One important consequence is that the organisation of local government fails to reflect the realities of political power. The real political impetus in almost all councils now derives not from committees, but from decisions taken in party groups.

The committee system in local government inhibits the emergence of strong political leadership. This is because the political leader of the authority, who is normally the leader of the council, owes his or her position to a decision taken by the majority party, rather than to a decision taken by the electors.

In France, by contrast, local mayors are powerful figures. Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris before becoming President. His two predecessors, Francois Mitterrand and Valery Giscard d'Estaing, had also been mayors. Despite the high degree of legal centralisation in France, local authorities have always enjoyed much greater influence than they have in Britain.

In the 1980s, the Widdicombe Committee considered the case for directly elected mayors in Britain, but rejected it, using the curious argument that it "personalises politics in a way that is accepted in countries with a presidential system of central government but generally disliked in Britain".

Indeed, there are directly elected mayors in local authorities in Australia, Canada and southern Germany, none of which has a presidential system of government. More fundamentally, however, the argument attacks the directly elected mayor system for what is its greatest strength - that it personalises politics.

Modern politics is, for better or worse, the politics of personality. The programmes that capture the imagination of the electorate are precisely those that can be associated with a powerful personality: a Margaret Thatcher or a Ronald Reagan. For most people, political philosophies are given the kiss of life by the personalities of those who espouse them. It is precisely because local government has become depersonalised that it has failed to capture the public imagination. What local authorities need today are not more powerful committees, but more powerful personalities: Joseph Chamberlains and Herbert Morrisons, perhaps even Ken Livingstones. Yet, under the committee system, they are unlikely to emerge.

We hear a great deal about the democratic deficit in the European Union. There is a more serious democratic deficit in British government. It consists in the replacement of elected representatives by appointed managers, the people who make up what Professor John Stewart has called the new magistracy. These managers are protected from the voters by distance and by time. They are, in Simon Jenkins's words, the unelected in pursuit of the unaccountable.

Under modern conditions, however, complex social and educational problems cannot be resolved without the active participation of the people. Some years ago, Douglas Hurd, as Home Secretary, called for the "active citizen" to play his or her part in the war against crime and other anti-social behaviour. The active citizen is more likely to emerge within a society in which local government is strong rather than one in which it is weak.

Last week, Tony Blair came out in favour of a directly elected mayor for London. He appears to have defeated those in the Labour Party who would prefer a mayor to be chosen by the new London strategic authority rather than by the people. The Opposition leader has already indicated approval for directly elected mayors in other local authorities. This could herald a real revival of local government.

Yet the auguries are not entirely hopeful. Political parties, after all, are schizophrenic about local government, sympathetic in opposition but hostile in office. Directly elected mayors, moreover, will compete with MPs as representatives of their communities. "I represent the constituency, not an elected mayor," a Liberal Democrat MP once told me, despite his commitment to devolution.

But perhaps the greatest barrier to the introduction of directly elected mayors lies with local government itself. When, in 1991, Michael Heseltine expressed sympathy with the idea, he was rebuffed by local authorities, fearful of a challenge to their traditional way of doing things. This time, local authority leaders must lead the way in pressing for reform. It may be their last chance to prevent the abolition of local government.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government, Oxford University. His book 'Power and the People: A Guide to Constitutional Reform' will shortly be published by Gollancz.

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