All things considered, Gordon Brown’s speech to the RSA earlier this week, setting out his views on various reforms to the UK’s political system, didn’t go down badly. It was long and hyperactive; setting himself the task of being visionary, Brown attempted to unpack all the possible meanings of ‘reform’ and ‘new politics’. Sweeping from House of Lords reform to the Alternative Vote, via more power for parliamentary committees, all-women shortlists, Freedom of Information and the obligatory reference to the irrelevant expenses debacle, Brown may not have satisfied the country’s cynical mood. But looking purely at the myriad of proposals themselves, I’m in favour of most of them and there was certainly something for everyone.
However, linking so many themes together is perhaps inevitably going to produce a spurious result. The speech drew on issues of corruption and standards in public life, demographic equality of elected representatives, Parliamentary procedure, electoral mechanics, minimum standards of essential public services… all of which are completely separate issues requiring distinct solutions.
Among the most potentially damaging confusions is that between accountability and empowerment, shown starkly in Brown’s own words:
‘That is why citizen empowerment must be at the heart of the new politics I want to see.
That means opening up government, with much more control and information held by the public and not concentrated in Westminster and Whitehall. Over and above our commitment to transparency through FOI we are committed to progressively reducing the time taken to release official documents – ensuring the public have access to public papers far quicker than ever before.
And we can now open up government in new transformative ways not open to us a decade ago.
We have brought public services closer to people in the internet age through the direct.gov website.’… [continues on the theme of web-based empowerment]
Empowerment, to me, means the ability to get more involved and have more clout in the decision-making process – not the ability, as important as it might be, to view statistics on government performance online or order copies of dodgy dossiers. And decision-making means anyone interested coming together to decide on things – not merely holding others to account about the decisions that they have made, or (with reference to another Labour suggestion) signing online petitions. Or, indeed, blogging.
This isn’t just semantic confusion resulting from a harassed PM trying to pack too much into one speech, but a real problem of perception that becomes even more problematic at the local level than at the national. In a speech ostensibly about improving democracy, Brown’s focus on Total Place, new scrutiny powers, consolidation of budget streams, and the like reveals a commitment not to improved democracy, but to improved managerialism. Joint working between the Chief Exec of the Primary Care Trust and the Chief Executive of the Council, drawing on shared funding streams linked to broad social objectives rather than to specific institutions, is almost certainly a good thing, but one thing it doesn’t do is increase the influence your average punter has on local decisions. In fact, by marginalising elected members in favour of appointed managers, it may even decrease local influence.
Whilst we’re still in a situation where central government spending priorities are still the biggest determinant of council taxes, business rates and more, there’s still likely to be a confusion between ever- more-atomised accountability and the collective experience of political empowerment. Next time our erstwhile leader gets the opportunity, rather than canter through a dozen policies, I’d rather he start with just one: putting our money where our mouth is.