Policy Papers


From Herbert Morrison to command and control: the decline of local democracy

Jerry White |

Executive Summary

  • For more than fifty years English local democracy has come under sustained attack from governments of every political complexion.
  • In ways that are now forgotten, this began with Attlee's post-war Labour government, though it was pursued vigorously by different means under Thatcher, and erosion continues as a result of policy confusion and muddled thinking under Blair.
  • There is now an urgent need for a major public debate about the role of local government in England's democratic arrangements. Without it, the muddled thinking will continue and an opportunity to deliver truly accountable local services will be lost.
  • The current confusion arises from a crisis. Command-and-control delivery of public services from Whitehall is at last seen to be unworkable. But the alternative, 'New Localism', consciously bypasses local government as a result of a combination of political anxiety and reluctance to accept any potential power rival to central government.
  • All this risks blundering from a central and over-bureaucratic management system to fractured and unaccountable arrangements at a local level.
  • But new forms of genuine local democracy can surely be devised, based on the experience of the regional assemblies and including serious consideration of the potential of proportional representation, local second chambers, national 'floor-targets', and partnership arrangements between authorities.

'Good Old 'Erb'

Herbert Morrison was elected Labour Mayor of Hackney in 1920, one year after his party swept to power in a landslide victory that began a new age in London's local politics. His fellow London Labour Mayors numbered among them Major Clement Attlee in Stepney and George Lansbury in Poplar.

Over the next few years Morrison would personify Labour local politics in London, and from 1934 London local government itself. In the press he was 'Mr London'. His was a distinctively 'new' Labour, consciously distanced from the adversarial politics of Lansbury in Poplar and communist-influenced parties in Bethnal Green and elsewhere. Morrison was sensibleness personified - pragmatic and diplomatic in his dealings with government, but of huge ambition for his party and his people, the Londoners. As Leader of the London County Council (LCC) from 1934 on, Morrison was at his desk in County Hall as the bombs began to fall. Churchill brought him into the war cabinet as Home Secretary because of the trust the Londoners placed in him at a time when the morale of the capital's bombed population seemed close to mutinous breaking point. As Morrison visited the bomb sites he was greeted by shouts of 'Good Old 'Erb'.

It might be useful to remind ourselves, 60 or 70 years on, just what sort of local government Morrison and his fellow council leaders represented and reigned over in the thirties and forties - in that Indian Summer of local democracy between 1930 and the middle of 1948. Since then, of course, local government functions in respect of planning, leisure, and children's services especially have grown in extent and sophistication. Planning only entered the local government remit in any extensive form in 1947, just at the end of the period. But with these and some other partial exceptions, the functional remit of local councils, especially at county level, was vastly wider then than now. Whole spheres of public life were owned and managed locally that are now seen as entirely the province of national government or the private sector. Public assistance, for instance, the relief of poverty among children and families, elderly people and widows. Emergency services - police, fire and ambulance. Further and higher education in colleges and polytechnics, as well as most adult education, was another county responsibility. Electricity production was largely provided by borough councils - Shoreditch had been one of the great generating pioneers in the 1890s. So, outside London at least, was much gas production from coal, and almost everywhere water was supplied by local authorities or their regional amalgamations brought together for that specific purpose. Most important of all, health services. All public health and infectious disease control, as well as most hospital beds, were services of local government. Hospitals were inherited from the poor law, itself a local service, and from 1930 the LCC owned and ran 40,000 of the 55,000 general hospital beds in inner London. London Labour was immensely proud of the strides it made in modernising an essentially Victorian provision during the thirties and forties.

In sum, we could weigh up most of what local government controls now and add to it 80% of the water supply, 70% of hospital beds, 66% of electricity generation, 40% of gas manufacture, almost all post-school education outside the universities, a good share of new house-building, a fair share of public transport (all trams, some buses), all social security benefits not based on national insurance. And add again for the years of total war, air-raid shelters, evacuation, factory creches, mass feeding, most rebuilding and all re-planning. Then we would have some idea of the extent of influence over the public sphere of local democracy in the two decades before 1948. It is also worth pointing out that these were services not only locally owned and run but locally paid for as well: in 1936-37 77% of LCC expenditure - including London's schools - was borne by local revenues, mainly through the rates.

With all the great extension of the role of government in people's lives that grew up from the 1830s on there was, it is true, some contention about whether regulation and service provision should be run locally or centrally. There were voices arguing loudly for the latter. But a generally accepted constitutional consensus meant that the centralisers were almost always in the minority. The position was summarised in the early 1920s by Sidney and Beatrice Webb in their history of the English prison system before it had been nationalised in 1877:

A great administrative service, extending throughout the whole country, which had been for centuries within the sphere of Local Government, was transferred en bloc to a department of the National Government. In no other branch of public administration has such a change been made in England. Whenever such a transfer has been proposed - as it has been at different dates for police, for elementary schooling, for lunacy, for main roads, and indeed, for other services - the characteristic English preference for local over central administration has hitherto always proved too strong to be overcome.

How things changed! Twenty-five years after the Webbs wrote this the 'characteristic preference' flipped the other way entirely. And at the start of the 21st century English local government seems largely residual and exiguous to the central state machine. How did all this come about?

Decline and fall

Two big policy initiatives have done for the once strong constitutional position held by local government. Both were built on ideology, mandated in outline at a general election and then ridden roughshod over existing local democratic arrangements. The first was nationalisation from 1945-50. And the second was privatisation from 1979-97. They were connected, too. For nationalisation, by weakening the power of local government and by gathering together industries and services under central control, eased the path for privatisation when the political tables turned thirty years on.

There is no space here to tell those stories. But we might note in passing that Morrison fought hard for the National Health Service (NHS) to be devolved to, and run by, local government, losing out to a powerful cabinet coalition, at least one of whom had an unreasoning hatred of Good Old 'Erb and all his works. And also that the LCC passed over its hospitals to the Minister 'reluctantly' and 'with sorrow'. In its stead local 'accountability' in the new national service was manufactured through a network of local boards. Their members were placed there by the Minister and could be removed at his direction. It was the greatest creation of quangos in British administrative history. And it marks the true beginning of that withering away of local democracy recognised belatedly by the Royal Commission on Local Government in England in 1969: it called the loss of the hospitals a 'great misfortune' that ought to be reversed. But just five years later the remaining local authority health services were nationalised too.

What have been the effects of all these changes on local democracy on the one hand and on the provision of 'national' services on the other? In short, it is no exaggeration to talk of the immiseration of local government in its present state. In some ways it remains very much alive. It does things that no one else really wants to do, like residual environmental and regulatory functions that are too small beer for central government to worry much about. It plays a big role in partnerships with the non-elected executive directors of local quangos and private companies, because there is no other organisation that can legitimately claim to represent the whole community. And every day, for good or ill, its services touch the lives of the neediest in our local communities.

But its powers have largely been abdicated to Whitehall at the centre (the Attlee model) and to school governors, urban regeneration companies, housing associations and others at the periphery (the Thatcher model, still actively pursued). Local government has no say in the school curriculum and has lost its colleges to separate corporate entities; its housing stock is starved of funds as an incentive to give it to new owners; it cannot build new homes to replace those given away; it has been forced to destroy its direct labour organisations and transport undertakings; it cannot raise taxes locally without risking intervention from central government, and central grants leave services cash-starved at every turn. Local government, compared with 1946, is little more than a fiction. It is 'virtual reality', local democracy for the Gameboy Age.

Small wonder, then, that national politicians bemoan participation rates or turnout figures at local elections. They are indeed risible. But why should people vote for organisations that have so little power to change things on the ground? Even more, why should anyone bother to stand for election in these circumstances? Small wonder too, then, that engagement in politics at all should be so weak when the very foundation of political experience in the localities has been terminally undermined and we face the prospect of a rising generation of political leaders who step straight from university to think-tank or management consultancy - and then to parliament.

'New localism'

But we are now at an interesting moment in this history of 55 years' dilution of local government's role in the British constitution. There is a crisis of confidence at the point it all began. Such a crisis, indeed, that the fundamental basis on which a 'national' service can be devised and sustained is now in question. And the crisis is deepest and most intractable in the NHS.

The 'nationalisation' of health provision in 1948 needs to be read in its double sense of a uniform national standard of service to which all citizens were entitled, as well as the ownership and control by government of key services, on behalf of the whole nation. Both objectives have proved elusive: so much so, and over such a long span of time, that probably they should now be considered illusory from the outset.

First, a 'universal' or uniform provision has never been achieved in the NHS. Every day, even after 55 years, we read of different hospital outcomes, of services like IVF treatment or CAT scans or specialist stroke units hard to find in some areas but not others, of postcode prescribing and the localised lottery of fate. It must now be apparent that local history - all the socio-political inherited peculiarities of place, including their diverse endowment of plant and personnel within the NHS - will not, cannot, give up its differences no matter what the national injunction from Whitehall. Of course, to a service that is predicated as 'national', local differences will usually look like failure. Perhaps local government, in Morrison's model, would have seen value in difference, even taken pride in it. In any event, one wonders whether local government would necessarily have evolved a less 'national' service than the one we have now.

Second, centralising power, authority and funding in the Minister and his department has failed to deliver what government wants. Command and control does not work. The micro-management of targets from Whitehall has become a farce. Scandals of NHS procurement, of IT investment vitiated by corruption, of financial blunders leading to mountainous local debts, of corporate governance arrangements that permit conflicts of interest to arise and continue, have provided unceasing noises off for two decades and no doubt more. Along the line, responsibility for the mess has become blurred in a nightmare forest of organisations that alter shape overnight, and in a quick-change army of foresters who regulate and inspect. And alongside it all, the democratic deficit that is Bevan's inheritance has resulted in a sham local accountability unable to add value because it has no real control over things on the ground. Again, one wonders whether a service devolved to local government to run, as Morrison wanted, could have brought about less effective control than this?

These fundamental difficulties are at last being recognised and discussed. In an interesting pamphlet published this autumn over the name of the Health Secretary John Reid, Localising the National Health Service: Gaining Greater Equity through Localism and Diversity, we find the first real questioning by government of what 'national' has come to mean. Reid puts the case 'against a uniform national approach'. We are a diverse nation. We do not all need or desire the same things. Women's needs are not necessarily the same as men's, black people's not necessarily the same as white, and so on. National uniform services are not appropriate any longer as a policy objective. We must focus on individuals and local communities. And we must recognise that the 'national' takes inadequate account of the desire for local decision-making, a long-held cause of the labour movement.

The key to changing all this is what Mr Reid calls 'New Localism'. It is 'new' in his terms because it consciously sets out to bypass old local government, which 'claims a sort of monopoly over anything that involves public services, ownership and locality':

The problem with ... the tradition of local government is that it encourages politicians to believe the local can and should operate completely autonomously from the national government.... While this pamphlet argues strongly for localism, it strikes me as absurd to argue that localities can in any way be autonomous from national policy.

Mr Reid sets up an Aunt Sally in an entirely autonomous local government: there has never been any such thing, since at least 1834. He then destroys the democratic capacity of new localism by denying that it 'can in any way be autonomous' from central government. And how absurd it is - to use Mr Reid's term - to divorce the national interest from the local in this way, as though they exist in separate solar systems. But perhaps all this is merely muddled expression. For Mr Reid does have a model in mind, and he refers to a concrete historical example in advocating it. Local decision-making, he says:

has been important in the development of progressive public services through the first 100 years of the Labour movement. Many policies that became national only started off because of local initiative. Public secondary education started a century ago because the London School Board - a directly elected school authority - broke the law to create secondary schools for the children of London's working people.

So for the flagship of new localism, Foundation Hospitals, Mr Reid proposes a special-purpose local body, along the lines of the London School Board, but with a self-selecting electorate who live in the Trust's 'membership community' and register as members of the Trust. The members then go on to elect a board of governors or 'stakeholder council' to manage the Trust. Accountability would be to the Trust membership. It is worth mentioning here, without further muddying already murky waters, that the government's consultation on police accountability floats the possibility of 'directly elected police boards' as 'a pure form of local democracy' - we shall have to wait and see.

In reviving special- or single-purpose local authorities, then, we can see that 'New Localism' is very old localism indeed. It takes us back to an era beyond living memory, before anything that we would now recognise as local government. It threatens to take us back, in its 'pure' eighteenth-century form, to a disordered nation where a local magistracy wielded undemocratic power over some matters and no one at all had responsibility for others. Why is government so keen to bypass existing local democratic arrangements and so head back to the future? Well, as Mr Reid shows, fear plays a large part in the government's strategy: fear of dissent, fear of political opposition, fear of an alternative power-base that has won competing legitimacy through the ballot box. This is no new phenomenon either. Over the years there have been many fierce disputes between local and national government - Poplarism, the Clay Cross Councillors, Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council and more. But history does not hold out much comfort here for Mr Reid. For it is possible cogently to argue that the demise in 1930 of the Boards of Guardians, the archetype of the special-purpose authority, lay in government's frustration with boards at West Ham, Poplar and elsewhere which refused to do the centre's bidding: so their functions were passed to much more sensible County and County Borough Councils.

Nor does history bode well for special-purpose authorities in other directions. The main argument against them, of course, is that they fragment local democracy on the one hand, and create divisions between services that increasingly are required to take a holistic approach to an individual's or community's needs on the other. Over the years, experience showed that it was better to absorb special-purpose authorities into a generic local government providing the widest range of services. Paving boards, commissioners of sewers, public library commissioners and many others went this way in London during the 19th century. It was just this argument that convinced those who welcomed the abolition of the London School Board in 1904. The small downside - some loss of expertise and passion among those elected representatives who would not be part of the new arrangements - was outweighed by the capacity to secure a wider vision. Here is Sidney Webb in 1904 on just that point as the enlarged LCC stood poised to take over the School Board's powers:

The new local authority is thus empowered to provide anything and everything that it deems necessary in the way of education - physical, mental, moral, elementary, secondary, university, manual, literary, artistic, scientific, commercial, technological, or professional - without restriction of subject or kind or grade; without limit of amount or cost; and without distinction of class or races or creed or sex or age. To the London County Council, as the directly elected executive body of the people of London, is given the power and the duty, subject to few conditions and practically no limitations, of equipping London with a complete educational system.

Mr Reid implies that fragmentation can be overcome with partnership. True enough, because not every public service can be run in one place or by one organisation, partnership, or defined and cooperative ways of working, is essential. But it is hard to exaggerate the massive transaction costs in time and resources and tireless diplomacy that have to be exerted in joint working between public services. Joint planning arrangements between health and local authorities, for instance, have been in place on a statutory basis since 1974: generally they have proved an expensive failure. And the daily agonising over corporate governance arrangements in new delivery agencies between health and social services, over the mistrust and sheer lack of understanding of each other's culture, has to be seen at first hand to be believed. That is mostly time and energy and money needlessly diverted from service users. Why not avoid the need for it where we can?

A way ahead

But can we? A revived generic local democracy certainly seems a long way off, and all the main trends are heading in different directions. There is clearly no appetite in Whitehall for a powerful, and hence potentially oppositional, base in town hall or county hall. Yet this remains an important moment when at least the need for local solutions, and the inaptness of command and control from the centre, have entered the debate on the future of public services. It should not be beyond the nation's collective wit to devise new but powerful generic authorities that avoid some of the political distortions and misfeasance of past and present local government. The new arrangements in Scotland and Wales should help as object lessons. So might proportional representation and a possible local second chamber of non-elected members, appointed from the community for their expertise or special interests. So might the experience of setting national 'floor-targets' or minima for local achievement in a few high-profile functions, while allowing genuine diversity in other areas. And so might partnership arrangements between authorities to guarantee that a citizen can access elsewhere a service in short supply locally.

Maybe the best that can be hoped for is an informed public debate on the place of local democracy in the British constitution. Indeed, the starting point does need to be as fundamental as that. Without some notion, some ground rules, of what the European Union calls 'subsidiarity' within the nation, local government will always be at the mercy of an aggrandising and hubristic centre. Local democracy has suffered near-terminal damage from five and a half decades of parliamentary dictatorship. There may now be a chink in the armour, but it has let in very little light so far.

And light is further obscured because the collective memory is so short and so many myths encumber the ground. In November 2003, for example, the Blair government was accused in the main local government journal of following through Thatcher's anti-local agenda in contrast to Clem Attlee and Nye Bevan's protection of local democracy in the 1940s! We need to get a firmer grip on the historical reality here. Without that we will never understand the difficulties we face now. Or just what the possibilities might be in the future.

Further Reading

Democratic Health Network, People Power and Health: A Green Paper on Democratising the NHS, 2003.

Bernard Donoughue and G.W. Jones, Herbert Morrison: Portrait of a Politician, 1973.

Home Secretary, Policing: Building Safer Communities Together, 2003.

Simon Jenkins, Accountable to None: The Tory Nationalization of Britain, 1995.

Alan Pike, The Disintegration of Local Government: Dangers of Single-Service Elected Bodies, 2003.

Rt Hon John Reid, MP, Localising the National Health Service: Gaining Greater Equity through Localism and Diversity, 2003.

About the author

Jerry White is the author of several books on London history including London in the Twentieth Century: A City and its People (Penguin), winner of the Wolfson History Prize for 2001. He is a Visiting Professor at Middlesex University and one of the three Local Government Ombudsmen for England. j.white@lgo.org.uk.

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