All power to the civil servants?

By Graeme Smith
17 May 2012

Birmingham was recently one of eight cities that voted “No” to the idea of a directly elected city mayor. As a resident of the city I am greatly relieved. We shall be spared the ‘Ken and Boris’ show, or worse, some pale imitation of London’s celebrity politics – Ken and Boris-lite.

There is too much ‘celebrity’ in national politics. It is possible, and sometimes good, that individuals represent and embody political ideas. Aung San Suu Kyi is a good example. But what was on offer in Birmingham was not an iconic personality-led revitalisation of local government. Those touted as potential candidates looked like politicians who had failed to make the Westminster premier league.

Being relieved, I am in something of a minority, as it is clear that most people did not really care one way or another. In the end the big winner was apathy.

The campaigns were lack-lustre. There seemed no good reason to have a directly elected mayor. The notion that a dynamic personality could be of economic benefit to the city is equally applicable to a good council leader.

No one seriously believed the ‘directly’ in ‘directly elected mayor’ would create a new breed of accountable, listening, promise-keeping politicians. And perhaps most seriously for the yes campaign it just looked like another layer of expensive bureaucracy proposed at a time when we are all suffering from government cuts. So an uninspiring, probably expensive idea proposed at the wrong time.

However the idea of a directly elected mayor arose because of specific problems within our political culture and although having a mayor might not be the answer, the questions still remain. Two problems stand out.

The first has been often discussed and is the problem of local government power. It is very difficult to get good people involved in local politics because all the major decisions are made at national level. Local politics is reduced to the status of a training post for those who want to get into the real business of national politics.

Furthermore, local elections are a way for the voter to comment on the performance of the government. So this time around it looks like Tory voters stayed at home in protest at what they see as Cameron’s failures. As a result, Cameron’s position is weakened whilst good hard-working local councillors lose their seats. In Labour’s time in government, they suffered the same fate.

None of which is any incentive to dedicate yourself to local government. You know that regardless of the hours you put into reading reports, listening to constituents complaints at regular evening surgeries, attending dull and relentless meetings, and building local alliances and movements for change, one hefty government scandal and you are out.

The second problem is less well-known but equally serious. Directly elected mayors short-circuit local party politics and also local government civil servants. They imply an uncluttered relationship between ‘ordinary people’ and the ultimate decision-maker, in this case the mayor.

This model of government pretends two things. First,that politicians are monarch-magicians who wave their magic wands to effect substantial social and/or economic change. That this is a fallacy is demonstrated by the rueful political memoirs of Prime Ministers.

Second, it pretends that ordinary people are experts in the common good. It is the same fallacy that proposes patients know best how to run hospitals or that parents know best how to run the education system.

Parents and patients know well whether the service or utility is working for them. They know whether little Simran can read yet or whether Uncle George’s hip is better after the operation. They can protest when it is not and they can vote for politicians who promise to make schools or hospitals work better. But they are not as well qualified as administrators and civil servants at making the whole work for the majority.

We need managers and administrators to work the bureaucracies which ultimately serve the common good. And we need local politicians who are experts in directing and checking local bureaucracies so that the interests of all in society are served. The system of local government we have is not ideal or perfect by any means. But it cannot be bypassed without a serious undermining of our democracy.

We should be very suspicious of politicians who seem to want to give up power to ordinary people. It looks too much like a rhetorical justification for keeping it themselves and removing the real threat to their authority, local experts.

I know “All power to the bureaucrats” is hardly an inspiring slogan. The daily grind of running the system is hardly the place for glorious political rhetoric. But there is no democratic short-cut which bypasses good, accountable local government. ‘Directly’ elected mayors have thankfully been rejected in Birmingham.

My hope is that the shallow rhetoric of ‘people know best’ can also suffer a similar fate in favour of a decent appreciation of expert knowledge in its proper place and a renewal of local democracy.

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(c) Graeme Smith is Senior Lecturer in Practical Theology at the University of Chichester. He has worked previously at St Michael’s College, Llandaff and Cardiff University, and Oxford Brookes University. An Ekklesia associate, his research interests are in contemporary social and political theology. He is editor of the journal Political Theology and author of the books A Short History of Secularism and Oxford 1937: The Universal Christian Council for Life and Work Conference, as well as academic articles on Thatcherism, Blair, Richard Rorty and Pragmatism, and Red Toryism.

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