THE LONDON FIRE, LOCAL PEOPLE AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT

(First published in the Daily Telegraph)

On the inferno in London’s Grenfell Tower on 14 June we know

  • that residents, local people and safety experts had long warned about the state of fire security in this and similar blocks,
  • that known techniques are available that would likely have prevented a fire inside one flat from engulfing the building.

The residents were not heard? We need to understand: Why?

The explanation is no double complex, but in the final analysis the answer must be that residents did not have the power to get their concerns acted upon. It was not that their fears were not known or not valid, but that the step from knowledge to action was not taken.

The reason they did not have power behind their concerns is also no doubt complex, but already on the day after the calamity it was observed that at least part of the reason must be systemic. Better precautions could and should have been taken to secure the block. The fact that such precautions were not taken shows that there is a fault in the system of governance. Decisions that should have been made were not made.

Grenfell Tower is in a borough (Kensington and Chelsea) of about 160 000 people. In a political unit that large, the distance from the little people in the little neighbourhoods up to those who are in charge is a very long. It is hard for any small group to be heard. These residents had people speaking for them in the local council, but that voice was only one of many in a large district and did not carry much weight.

Furthermore, this council, as British local councils generally, is itself bereft of power. Councils have some limited responsibilities which they exercise pretty much as administrative agencies under direction from Whitehall. They are not actually local governments. They manage some local affairs, but they do not represent local populations. In his book The British Constitution, published in 2007, the late Anthony King, concluded: “Local government is no longer, in any meaningful sense, a part of the British constitution.”

Your local concerns compete with those of others and if yours are to prevail there must be power behind them. This is the iron law of democratic governance. Those who govern deal with the matters they must deal with. Other matters are squeezed out. The people in Grenfell Tower and its neighbourhood did not have political representation because they are a small and peripheral group in a very large district and because the council at the head of that district is not a local government in the business of representing local people.

This absence of local political representation is visible in many areas of British life. In recent years, for example, we have had terrible flood catastrophes. These have also been the result, at least partially, of failures to take precautions. That has resulted, again, from systemic failures in governance. There has been no clearly defined localised responsibility. Local councils have had little and ambiguous authority in the matter. Flood protection throughout the land is the responsibility of Whitehall in London and the national Environment Agency. That’s a long way to go to get someone who is responsible for innumerable rivers to take an interest in yours.

Local populations are at the mercy of such attention as distant authorities may elect to give them. Local councils may by and large do the jobs assigned to them well, but such management is also all they do and can do. They are not attuned to acting as the local population’s representative, and local populations are not attuned to turning to their council for representation. There is not the relationship between council and population that is the fabric of local government. This is reflected in the dismal participation in local elections.

In Britain’s architecture of governance, there is a whole layer missing. There is, as Professor King found, NO LOCAL GOVERNMENT. In the case of Kensington and Chelsea, once a catastrophe outside of the council’s remit hit, such local authority as there was simply disintegrated, first into paralysis and then falling apart in resignations.

The absence of local government is one of several defects in the constitution, in need of urgent repair. This void should be filled with local units of government that are different in two ways from today’s councils. They should be both smaller and have more responsibility. There should be nearness between local people and their authorities and those authorities should have the power and responsibility to give their populations representation.

Our national politicians want us to think that Britain is a well governed country. But it is not. A well governed country has the apparatus to deal with the population’s concerns. In Britain, part of that apparatus is missing. A vital link in the chain of command from people in the localities to governors up high is missing. Britain has the most centralised system of government of any country in Europe (devolution notwithstanding, which for local government proper means yet more emasculation). We are on our own in believing it is possible to deliver good governance without local governments. As we have now seen in even the wealthiest borough in the centre of the capital, that is a failing enterprise.

THE POLITICS OF ANGER – WITH A FRENCH TWIST

In the French presidentials, the establishment candidates were dismissed in the first round. But here, for reasons difficult to explain, there had been a political realignment giving voters who wanted to reject the establishment a centrist alternative to go to. We have perhaps thought that the politics of anger must find its outlet on the extreme right or extreme left, but that may not necessarily be the case. France is showing the way – who would have thought?

There are two dimensions to the politics of anger. One goes to the substance of public policy. There is a failure to respond to the pressures of modern capitalism with a credible agenda of fairness and social justice. Economic progress trickles up but not down, resulting in a landscape of affluence on one side and public poverty and exclusion on the other side.

The other dimension goes to the way politics is made. Citizens are able to vote but otherwise feel, or many of them do, that they have no say in public affairs, that they are not involved and not invited to be involved.

For now, we have no good answer to the challenge of social justice. Following the economic crisis of the 1930s and World War II, advanced democracies invented welfare states that were effective as a civilising influence on industrial capitalism. Now we need a similar civilising influence on post-industrial capitalism, but that is yet to be forthcoming. In Britain, for example, where the Labour Party was the leading force in the welfare state revolution, that movement is now without ability to confront the fact of a very different capitalist order.

To the question of how politics is made, however, we probably do have an answer. The reason many citizens feel excluded from influence, is that they are excluded from influence. “Populism” is hardy a wave of irrational anger, but a reasoned reaction to the gulf of distance that separates “them” up there and “us” down here. The way to respond to “populism,” then, is not by blaming angry citizens for not understanding their own good but by rebuilding structures of policy-making for less distance.

Democracies with decentralised governance are more successful than centralised ones in terms of cohesion between political leaderships and citizenry. It is easy to understand why. When public policy is made in a balanced way between central and local decision-making, citizens have more opportunities for involvement, and for involvement in matters that are near and relevant to them. If you are on the losing side in national elections, for example, that is not the end of the line for you. There are still real and meaningful local arenas to be involved in.

The age of deference is over and citizens expect to be taken seriously and to be involved in public matters. The more governance is centralised, the more citizens have no other way of “participating” than by airing anger in demonstrations, protests, manifestations and the like. Hence we get the paradox that many young people in particular are involved and ready to spend time marching, but cannot bother to vote.

Much of the answer to the how-politics-is-made dimension in the politics of anger, I am suggesting, lies in local government, local democracy and a setting of real local authority and responsibility. In trying to understand matters such as democratic culture, it is generally advisable to assume that people are as they are and good enough and to look to how they are treated. If citizens have arenas of meaningful involvement, we can expect social peace. If all that is available to them is to respond to removed and centralised governance, there is no involvement within reach and no other “participation” than in the venting of anger.

An optimistic reading of the French situation, one week ahead of the final round of the presidentials, is that the new centrist force is responding to both challenges of populism, both the substance of policy and the way policy is made. That is perhaps a very optimistic reading, but there is at least some hope for a non-extremist alternative to the politics of anger. Looking out from Britain, it is good to have a straw of hope to cling on to. Here, too, we face elections, but so far the campaign gives no promise of any innovation, neither in the substance of policy nor in the way policy is made. In the country in which the politics of anger made itself felt with such force that the constitution is in turmoil, it is as if there is nothing to be learned form that experience.