In a near-perfect piece of political casting, Hazel Blears has introduced a White Paper on local government, hilariously entitled Communities in Control. Like the smilingly officious primary schoolteacher she occasionally resembles, Ms Blears has patted the electorate on the head and has promised lots and lots of new rules to make things better for everybody.
Having spotted that the “structure and culture” of politics sometimes alienates voters, she plans to “shift power, influence and responsibility from the centre and into the hands of communities and individual citizens.” All this, she promises, will “generate vibrant local democracy”.
No one could accuse the current government of lacking a sharp sense of irony. Just over two weeks ago, it introduced radical changes to the planning system, which will shift power, influence and responsibility in precisely the opposite direction: away from communities and individual citizens and into the hands of unelected quangos which will be doing the will of central government
If Hazel Blears is really concerned to discover why, as the White Paper puts it, “there is a lot of cynicism about politics”, she might study the behaviour of her own government. For years now, New Labour has been spinning the idea that neighbourhood values are wonderful things and that, as Gordon Brown said when he became Prime Minister last year, “our participatory democracy is too weak at a local level”. All the while, it has been busily ensuring that the power of central over local government is extended and strengthened.
As a result, voters involved in local politics have quickly realised that, when it comes to the truly important decisions, they and their council are powerless.
In this context, the Blears proposals are an insult to the intelligence. There will, she promises, be “a prize draw” for those voting in local elections, with supermarket vouchers and perhaps even an iPod as prizes. More towns – hurrah! – will be able to vote for mayors. Some council assets, like swimming-pools or street markets, could now come under the control of neighbourhood groups. “Community kitties” will be established for important local improvements. Local leaders will “do more to help residents understand how the democratic process works and how they can get involved”.
And, children, there will be much, much more accountability: if 5 per cent or more of an area’s population sign a petition, their council will be obliged to hold a debate on the subject. The model for this scheme is, incidentally, that famously effective force for change, the online petition on the website of 10 Downing Street. Peculiarly, the rather sensible rule preventing council officials earning more than £33,000 a year from standing as councillors will be ditched.
The Tories have described these ideas as “essentially harmless” and, at a superficial level, they are right. But behind the self-praising flannel which is now part of political life, a sort of con-trick is taking place. The Government has decided that the public is so greedy and self-interested that people will only vote if there is the chance to win supermarket vouchers. It believes that we are so stupid that talk of community kitties and online petitions will divert our attention from the shift of power from small to big, from local councils to Westminster.
Here is the structure and culture of politics to which the new White Paper refers. The indifference, cynicism and alienation that people are feeling have a cause. Hazel Blears does not have to travel far from her own office to discover what it is.
They do it better over there
It is one of those moments when public life in these islands seems ever so slightly grey. In Italy, the Minister for Equal Opportunities, Maria Carfagna, left, formerly a topless model, is defending herself against vulgar allegations about what she may or may not have done to Silvio Berlusconi. In France, President Sarkozy’s wife Carla Bruni has released a song describing him as “my lord… my darling… my orgy”.
And what are our public figures up to? A spank-happy motor-racing boss is in the High Court. A few politicians have been cheating with their expenses. Gordon Brown has compared himself to Heathcliff. No wonder the nation is feeling grumpy: we need a good, old-fashioned scandal to make us feel alive again.
* The story of Abbie Hawkins, a young receptionist from Norwich who found a baby bat asleep in her bra, has acted as a sort of Rorschach test of prevailing social attitudes. Some people have worried that the bat would have travelled so far from its home that its animal rights had been abused. Others were scandalised that Abbie, who is 19, had drunk so much the night before that she put on her bra without noticing that a mammal was inside it.
In fact, Abbie has emerged from the story with great credit. Unlike many people, who become childishly hysterical when bats are near them, she was sympathetic towards her passenger. “It looked very snug in there, and I thought how mean I was for disturbing it,” she told the local paper. Then, sportingly, she posed in the famous bra. If only all teenagers were that sensible and good-humoured.