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Political/executive relations in local government and the hypocrisy of political depoliticisation

12.23.08 | Comment?

(Long post alert – 2, 500 words approx.  Word version here if it’s easier.)

There was an interesting reaction from the Chief Executive of Conservative-controlled West Lancashire District Council to the recent coverage in the press (which took it from this blog) about the Council’s use of 5 stars on its new logos.

In an email to staff and members and others on the mailing list, the Chief Executive wrote:

‘Members and staff alike will have seen the press story this week which cast some doubt on the Council’s right to use 5 stars next to our Audit Commission ‘Excellent’ logo.  I have got no intention of being dragged into the politics of this but if it is anybody’s ‘fault’ it’s mine.’

Let’s just take a little look at what he’s doing here, especially in the last, cleverly concocted sentence.

1) First, the use of the passive verb form ‘being dragged’, rather than, say, the active ‘entering into’ suggests that the Chief Executive is an innocent by-stander in all this horrid business of politics, above which he seeks to rise; In so doing he sets himself up for the next bit of the sentence, where he cleverly portrays himself as ‘guilty’ in the technical sense but innocent in the moral sense.

2) In the second clause, then, he admits to having authorised the illegitimate use of 5 stars on the new logo.  How noble of him to stand up and be counted – except that it’s not quite like that.  By putting ‘guilty’ in inverted commas, even though he’s not actually quoting from anyone or anything, he insinuates that it is others’ construction of events which render him ‘guilty’, and that it’s really nothing to do with what he actually did.  The ‘discursive articulation’ is back to those pesky politicians in the first part of the sentence; it’s those dirty polticians that have framed him, and while he remains as pure as the driven snow in his motives, he’s also such a decent bloke that he’ll take the rap just to protect his beloved staff and members from besmirchment by the loony left. What a guy!

When I stand back and look at it like this, I have to admire what he manages to pull off – even though I’m the one he’s attacking personally, because the whole press story started on my blog and has quotes from me littered across it.  Yup, I’m that horrid politician seeking to drag the Chief Executive to a place he shouldn’t be dragged. 

Now, as I’ve been at pains to point out elsewhere on this blog, the Chief Executive is a decent public servant; it is his misfortune to be at the executive helm of a Council currently under  the political control of an incompetent, arrogant, economical-with-the-truth Conservative group.

A very different interpretation to that provided by the Chief Executive – that the Councils’ penchant for style over substance, and that their claim of ‘excellent services’ does not stand up to any decent level of scrutiny – need not detain us, principally because I have already critiqued it here and here.

What is important here is the way the Chief Executive – all the time under the guise of ‘professional neutrality’ – defends his political masters and then attacks their political opponents for them.

He is doing what a good Chief Executive is expected, by his professional code of honour, to do.  When there’s an attack on his political administration, he stands up and does his best to take the bullet (and then fire a couple back). Those are the institutional rules of the game in local government- let the politicians take the plaudits when things go well, let them hide when they don’t.

Meanwhile, the controlling Conservative polticians retreat into the background, because they know where their strength lies.  When under attack, strength lies not in arguing at an open political level, because they know the details are against them.  It lies simply in portraying the Labour opposition as baddies by getting their Chief Executive to portray their oppostion as being to do with  ‘politics’. 

This example plays out precisely the same way as it did when I launched a political attack on them over their appalling approach to leisure services provision; instead of engaging with the detail, I was accused in the media of ‘playing politics’ with the service.  A political approach to service provision may be something which I am proud of, but they know that kind of honesty doesn’t go down well with the press.

There are wider consequences of this ‘depoliticisation-where-it-suits-us-politically’ approach, of course. 

Statements like that made by the Chief Executive, and followed up later (in places, verbatim) by the Leader of the Council in the press – when he decided it was safe to come out of hiding – only serve to reinforce a popular distrust of the local politician; I am cast not as someone engaging in a necessary debate about the Council’s respect for reality, but as someone simply out to make political mischief for my own ends. 

In so doing, the Council relegates the importance of the overall legitimacy of the democratic process to behind its own short term reputation needs.  It does all this while having the gall to celebrate Local Democracy Week.    It is a fundamnetally hypocritical approach to politics.

Of course, I am not suggesting that Conservative-controlled West Lancashire District is alone in this cynical  (and in the long term, destructive) approach to its political institutions.  I raise this as a fairly detailed example simply because I live and do my stuff in West Lancashire, although it is also true that this Council has in the past few years proved particularly adept at its own self-promotion in a way which far outstrips the shoddy reality of its performance.

Clearly, many other local authorities up and down the land – not just Conservative ones – adopt a similar approach to the strategic political use of their supposedly apolitical officers.  It’s widely accepted practice to denigrate the political bit of local politics, and this will be regarded in most places as nothing more than sound PR.

But there are some places where it’s different.

In a few authorities, where the ‘partnership relationship’ between political leaders and senior officers has developed differently over the last 25 years, the political leadership ‘stands up and be counted’, and the ‘politics of it all’ stands proud.

First and foremost amongst these is Manchester, where; here, for example, Labour leader Cllr Richard Leese was the one to stand up in public a couple of weeks ago, in the aftermath of the public transport ‘no’ vote, while the Chief Executive (I dn’t even know her/his name offhand) got on with her/his job more adminstrative running the Council.   Even before the vote, it was he who put his neck on the line by supporting it so explicitly.

Similarly, though perhaps less speedily than might have happened, it was the political leadership that stood up to be counted in Haringey when the Baby P case erupted, as the Chief Executive stood hidden. 

And whatever you may think of Ken Livingstone’s political leadership of London (covered here), both in the 80’s and the 00’s, he was out there promoting his brand of politics, taking on all-comers on the politics of those politics, and defending the decisions he made in political terms.

What is common to these three authorities? 

Well, first they’ve remained relatively popular with the public despite the turn against Labour nationally since 2003, and I think that’s got at least something to do with that they’ve been prepared to ‘do politics’ openly, and without being ashamed of being politicians.  In Manchester in particular, it’s not just about a strong and ‘out there’ political leadership, it’s about an ethos that runs right through the party – a pride in what has now been branded as ‘Manchester Labour’, as distinct from national Labour, and a pride in the political.

The second thing that is common to them, and this is linked to enduring popularity (even though Livingstone lost in 2008, his actual vote increased), is that they all have, to differing extents, a ‘New Urban Left’ tradition dating from the 1980s, when in certain local authority areas the left of the party won against the right for control of the Labour group (and allied party institutions) and went about forging new Council processes that suited its political aims.

This ‘politicised’ tradition is now firmly embedded, I contend, in these areas, and lives on in younger members in the way they go about their Council activities, and in particular how they relate to Council officers – not as a national Minister relates to her/his civil servants (see below), but as equal partners with a common agenda.

In the 1980s this New Urban Left was proud of how it sought to politicise local government officership, because it understood that it is only through gaining and transforming institutional power that real change could be brought.  The extent to which that succeeded is a point of debate, because left-wing local authorities seeking to make such transformation were really up against it – not just from a Conservative national government determined to bring local government to heel (or abolish it as necessary) but also from the more moderate wing of the Labour party.

It is the successes of the New Urban Left that Hilary Wainwright celebrates (at the same time as bemoaning the reaction of the Labour right) in her seminal ‘Labour: A tale of two parties’ (1987).  

For a more contemperaneous view from ‘scholar-activists’ on attempts to forge a new relationship between councillors and officers, though, I prefer the 1984 ‘Local Socialism’ (ed. Martin Boddy and Colin Fudge), in which they recount:

‘Politically committed officers have been appointed to work on initiatives relating in particular to women, blacks, employment and the police to link policy development at officer level to issues in these areas and to the political aims of elected members’ (p.10).

At local level then, for a period in the 1980s where the left held sway, there was a real understanding of how power operated, and that creating permanent change was not just a matter of policy development, but of institutional transformation.  As I’ve noted, this lives on today in some local authorities.

Compare this though, with the attitude of the Labour government when it came to power, reflected in Tony Blair’s soothing words to the 1998 Senior Civil Service conference, and reported on recently in an excellent article by Dave Richards, Helen Mathers and (a little surprisingly?) David Blunkett:

‘Early in Labour’s first term, Tony Blair declared that his government had no intention of politicising Whitehall. In what was seen as a reaffirmation of the nineteenth-century principles of Northcote-Trevelyan, he observed ‘a neutral civil service is one of the great assets of our political system and we will not put it at risk.  I and my colleagues can look after the politics….It is your job to respond with high quality advice and excellent public services.’ (Speech to Senior Civil Service Conference, 13 October 1998).

While this explicit acceptance of the status quo – enough to a have GDH Cole AND Harold Laski whirling in his grave and Tony Benn getting mildy cross too – is about the national civil service, this acceptance of the status quo has flowed through into New Labour’s approach to elected local government. 

As Janet Newnham explored in her ‘Modernising Governance: New Labour, Policy and Society’ there has been an acceptance of ‘New Public Management’ methods introduced under Thatcherism – ‘outsourcing’ to the private sector has become the norm rather than the exception, for example – and this move towards the acceptance of essentially neo-liberal methods has taken place under the camouflage of the need to ‘depoliticise’ local government, to make it more ‘customer focused'; by this. what is really meant  is that the battle against inequality and the struggle for services for all, is to be relegated in importance behind customer services for the already-served, and ultimately behind the glossy, managerialist self-promotion  of the type my Council does so very well.

Nowhere is this desire on the part of central government to see local government ‘depoliticised’  – to see real political struggle disappear – than in the 2007 ‘Councillors Commission report : Representing the Future’, which fed into the Community Empowerment White Paper.

Under a veneer of support for elected councillors, the message in this is clear – doing politics is old-fashioned, and what is needed now is people who will comply with a councillor ‘job description'; Recommendation No .5 in the report is just that – that Councils should draw up job descriptions setting out what councillors should and, more importantly, shouldn’t do.  I can’t see the new job duties including ‘ object loudly and in detail when you see injustice being done by the Council, or the Council making things up’.  Can you? 

One of the other things the report recommends councillors should do is make use of  the ‘media and communications resources of the council’, and of ‘council newsletters and other media publications’ (recommendation no.7).  It’s as though the Commission had never heard of the concept of being in opposition!  I’ve spent getting on two years offering detailed critiques of the crap offered up in Council publications, only to be told I should ‘promote the role councillors’ by using these very ‘communication tools’.

And where do the poltical parties fit into all this brave new world of the ex-political councillor?  Well, recommendation no. 31 says that ‘National Party Leaderships should recognise more visibly the value of councllor and work with them proactively, so that they can be seen to be an integrated part of the system of governance’.

Well, I’m sorry – I’m not willing to become ‘part of the system of governance’, because I think the current system of governance is bad for people in West Lancashire.

 The challenge for ‘political’ councillors like me, then, is threefold.

First, we must continue to take pride in being ‘political’, in being oppositional, in going against the Council-driven, media-enhanced, government-sanctioned line that good councillors do not rock the institutional boat.  This is not easy – the whole discourse is against us at the moment, but we must remember that it is we, by taking pride in our politics, who are the real supporters of local democracy.

Second, we need to be working within the party to get the message across to the centre – that local government needs to remain political, or the right will continue to rely on their inbuilt institutional support to drive home their agenda.  That, in time, will be more Councils lost to the Conservatives and Libdems.  We are good at politics when we get to do it – they are not as good.

Finally, we need to look both backwards to the history of the left in local government – some of it was  a bit rubbish, but some of it leaves an important legacy – and take confidence in the fact that we can again be the trailblazers for a socialism that the centre’s acquiescence to institutional rightwing biases has, sadly, made more difficult to achieve.

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