Hazel Blears, Communities and Local Government Secretary in the Labour Government has announced her decision to leave the government on the eve of local government elections in England, in what is being widely seen as direct attack on PM Gordon Brown.
“In this next phase of my political life I am redoubling my efforts to speak up for the people of Salford as their Member of Parliament. I am returning to the grassroots (where I began), to political activism, to the cut and thrust of political debate. Most of all I want to help the Labour Party to reconnect with the British people, to remind them that our values are their values, that their hopes and dreams are ours too. I am glad to be going home to the people who matter the most to me: the people of Salford.” From Hazel Blears resignation letter.
“I am not normally the sort of politician who gets excited by LAAs, MAAs and LSPs, but I am excited by IRSs because they represent a real shift in power.” Hazel Blears, quoted in Public Servant June 2009. (see below for translation)
It seems, if the above two quotes above are anything to go by, that Hazel Blears has decided to return to the grass-roots just in time before she completely disappeared into Whitehall village idiocy – only someone who’ been hanging around Sir Humphrey too long could come out with the second quote.
(Of course the real reasons Blears has left government has more to do with (a) being caught avoiding capital gains tax on her 2nd home and paying £13,322 tax to make amends and (b) making a very public attack on the PM after his appearance on YouTube to promote his ideas about reforming MPs expenses).
All joking aside, the advent of these various supra-local government agreements, under the slogan of ‘joined-up government’, has been a key feature of local public service reforms from this Labour government in recent years. And the most obvious thing about them is that they have gradually moved further and further away from direct democratic control.
I have already written on this blog that the new ‘Comprehensive Area Assessments’ (CAAs) from the Audit Commission risk reducing greatly the element of democratic accountability that Comprehensive Performance Assessments (CPAs) – that assessed local government directly and thereby gave voters some much needed insight into how ‘their’ representative democratic body was doing. LSPs, LAAs, MAAs and now IRSs all take agreements about what priorities to deliver, and how, further and further away from direct democratic accountability.
According to Blears’, quoted in Public Servant, IRSs would be the “catalyst to tackle the big issues” during the recession and beyond. Similar things have been said about the whole plethora or regional and city-regional initiatives. But the Labour government seems incapable of recognising that these new regional tiers of government, even if democratically elected (which most of them aren’t) have been consistently rejected by the voters who clearly don’t want them.
Hopefully Blears’ successor will get back to the agenda of reforming and strengthening local democracy rather than spiralling further off into the realms of quango-land.
Given the current crisis of democratic legitimacy at national level, now is surely the time to start rebuilding it from the bottom-up, starting with a dramatic shift of power from Whitehall to Townhall. This is not without its problems (see my article in Public Finance this Friday) but it is vital if we are to re-establish a bond of trust between elected politicians and the people.
Joined-Up Jargon Buster
CPA: Comprehensive Performance Assessment; carried out by Audit Commission on local governments. Widely seen as helpful but now superceded by:
CAA: Comprehensive Area Assessments; performance assessment of all (or most) public services in a local authority area.
LAA: Local Area Agreement, a sort of performance agreement between different public services in a single local government area (mandatory).
MAA: same sort of thing covering multiple local authority areas (voluntary).
LSP: Local Strategic Partnership – loose agreement about priorities and policy for a single LA area.
IRS: Integrated Regional Strategy – same sort of thing as LSP covering a whole region.