The recent launch of the Sustainable Communities Act is just the latest instalment in the government’s raft of reforms ostensibly aimed at empowering communities and giving people greater control over local services. For all my doubts about the so-called “petition power” and the wonder of “asset transfer”, some of the proposals in the white paper, Communities in Control: Real People, Real Power, are arguably welcome.
The opportunity for people to scrutinise their political representatives by holding “local question times” might just blow some of the cobwebs away in those dusty council chambers. And it would no doubt be a good thing if more of us took part in our communities and took on “civic roles”.
As communities minister Hazel Blears rightly says, “There is a lot of cynicism about politics but it is through politics that we bring about change for the better.” But this admirable sentiment is rather undermined by the cynical uses to which the communities agenda is being put – not to mention the proposed prize draw to reward voters for bothering to vote, one of the more troubling ideas.
While it is undoubtedly the case that official efforts to “engage” us have, as David Walker has observed, become “public management cliches”, it is what he calls the “new subjectivity of public services” that makes the business of engagement so different today. The focus is on the intangible idea of community well-being rather than the provision of good quality public services.
But while Walker argues that politicians and service providers just don’t have the requisite “emotional intelligence” to engage with this new agenda, surely what is required is real engagement through political ideas and genuine attempts to grapple with the real problems that communities face. As Simon Jenkins has argued, this failure to engage with the electorate is only to be expected from a government that, for all its talk of devolving power, has nothing but “contempt for democracy”. The political class, as he also says, hate being put to a vote. But it is not just elections that they find “vulgar, foreign, exhibitionist and unpredictable”, it is the electorate themselves.
Nevertheless, as Hazel Blears inadvertently let slip recently, these sorts of measures have as much to do with building political legitimacy as they do with building communities. “In many parts of the country, local democracy needs a boost, with low turnout at local elections and people feeling they can’t influence the way some issues are decided in their area,” she said.
With this in mind, the proposed duty on local authorities to “promote democracy” is not only a curiously bloodless way of engaging the disengaged. More worrying is the notion that democracy can be imposed by diktat. This authoritarian bent to the communities agenda reveals a thinly veiled attempt to paper over the exhaustion of politics and the increasing isolation of a clueless and desparate political class.
Rather than acknowledging their own disengagement from society and their efforts to overcome it, the government has projected its anxieties onto communities in the name of empowering them.