Steve Richards of The Independent on the PBA

5 11 2009

Steve Richards has written an excellent article on the potential impact of the PBA.

In rare moments of calm the focus switches from a troubled Government to a partially recovered Conservative Party. When it does so David Cameron’s admirers and critics tend to argue in unison that the Conservative leader should set out his political purpose more clearly, implying that he lacks a compelling or coherent narrative.

The criticism is both unfair and slightly odd. Whatever his failings, Cameron outlines in most speeches a vision that is potentially revolutionary in its implications, one that could at the very least transform the political culture in Britain and might bring about more sweeping changes.

Cameron envisages an extraordinary transfer of power away from the centre to local community groups, users of public services and to local government. Take a typical speech he delivered last month to the Young Foundation. Cameron began by arguing that a much greater degree of local control allows communities to apply solutions best suited to meet their needs. He added also that diversity works at a national level. Local innovation would allow others to copy the best.

Like Gordon Brown, Cameron has started to quote philosophers for ammunition. In this speech Cameron cited Burke: “The reciprocal struggle of discordant powers draws out the harmony of the universe.” This is not exactly an election slogan or a neat sound bite but Burke’s stormy yet hopeful metaphor points out the direction in which Cameron is heading.

From that lofty starting point Cameron offered several specific examples. Local providers would be allowed to set up schools free from central accountability. Police forces would be accountable to locally elected figures and not the Home Office. There would be powerful Mayors in cities. Powers currently wielded by government quangos might be transferred to local councils.

Cameron’s close ally and director of strategy, Steve Hilton, enthuses about wider changes. He sees a new potential for co-operatives, normally associated with the left-of-centre. Hilton was struck by the success of a big food co-operative in Harlem, selling fresh organic vegetables but also becoming the centre of a local community, more rooted and responsive than traditional institutions.

Last month Cameron launched the Conservative Co-operative movement in which he suggested that “food co-ops are one great way to challenge the domination of the big supermarkets”. Fleetingly, Hilton had hoped that some Conservative candidates could stand as members of the original co-operative movement, but obviously the formal affiliation to the Labour party meant this was an impossible move.

The cultural shift is illustrated by discussions held by senior Tory figures in advance of Cameron’s recent speech on what he called his “decentralised energy revolution”. In the speech Cameron outlined ways in which people might generate their own electricity. Within Cameron’s circle, there was a debate about whether the headline should be “A million to generate their electricity by 2020”.

Some of Cameron’s entourage joked that these days the deadline is always 2020. Why should it not be 2018 or 2013 for once? But more importantly some argued that they could not guarantee a million people would be generating their own electricity. It might be a lot more than that and could be less. They were proposing enabling mechanisms rather than being prescriptive. It would be up to consumers to decide.

Therefore it is possible that shadow cabinet members could enter the next election unable to pledge outcomes in specific policy areas, but instead promising to create circumstances where people will have the chance to take more control of their lives. It is also possible that if the Tories are elected and there is a crisis in one part of the country a minister will declare in a revolutionary move: “This is not my responsibility. We have given the power away. We said we would let a thousand flowers bloom. There are bound to be a few weeds, but take a look at the flowers.”

The Tories have a new phrase to convey what they are about. In every speech Cameron speaks of the “post-bureaucratic age”, a potentially potent phrase as no one raves about bureaucrats (unless things go wrong, such as the missing CDs at the inland revenue, when everyone complained that Brown had cut the number of bureaucrats).

The post-bureaucratic age has replaced “social responsibility” as Cameron’s favourite phrase. At one stage Hilton looked at the “enabling state” as a phrase that conveys what they are trying to do, but like the co-ops, the words were too associated with Labour.

Whether the Tories will let go of the strings at the centre is not certain. The media culture is confused. The dominant right-wing newspapers call on government to keep out of our lives, but when anything goes wrong anywhere in the country they blame the government. Ministers risk being slaughtered if they argue that they are not responsible in the midst of a crisis.

Cameron has plenty of opt-outs that would allow him to be more cautious. He has said, for example, “we will look seriously” at transferring powers from quangos to councils that is not a firm commitment. I could cite many other qualifications. In this Cameron is similar to Tony Blair in the mid-1990s. Blair hailed a revolution in virtually every speech he made as leader of the opposition, but he left open the option to be more cautious. In government Blair always chose the cautious option.

There is an even more fundamental question. If the Tories made the leap away from the centre would it work? Do parents, especially poorer parents, have the time to set up schools or co-operatives? Will local accountability of the police improve the service or make it worse? How can a government encourage the creation of local initiatives without pulling the strings, a move that would defeat the purpose?

The voluntary sector is already nervous of the Conservative approach. Above all else charities want to become highly professional outfits. They sense a romanticised view from some Tories that they are at their best as a bunch of poorly funded amateurs. Child poverty groups also argue that more cash is part of the solution to ending child poverty, not a reliance on charities and tax breaks to encourage families to stay together.

Senior Conservative figures recognise that more work is required in relation to the dangers of iniquity and the challenge of seeking certain outcomes without wishing to pull the strings. But at least some in Cameron’s entourage dare to think differently. They view with interest the activities of the Green Party, the Lib Dems and left-of-centre pressure groups such as Demos. There is an appetite for ideas that has not been around the top of the Tory party since the late-1970s. In the end, caution might prevail and the ideas may amount to not very much, but they could come to mean a lot.



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