The war that is coming

The managerialisation of local government means it is fanciful to imagine it will resist the cuts like it did in the 1980s. But Vince Mills argues that this does not mean the battle is over.

There is, according to military pundits, always a danger that we fight the wrong war, in the sense that we prepare for the next war on the strategy and tactics we used in the last one; the initial tactics of the first world war, for example, allowed for cavalry charges, not tank attacks. We are now in the throes of debating how we resist the cuts. To continue the military analogy there are three main theatres of struggle: UK issues determined by the Westminster government, like housing benefits; the NHS – the responsibility here lies primarily with the Scottish Government; and finally there are local services like education, social work, refuse collection and so on that are delivered by and partly funded at local level.

It is on local government that I want to focus. There is no doubt about the significance of this sector. The third quarter of 2009 showed that the total full-time equivalent employment in Local Government in Scotland (excluding Police, Fire and related services) was 221,600. This figure comprises: 56,000 teachers; 36,400 other education staff; 43,600 social work staff and 85,500 other staff. These make up 54.2 per cent of devolved public sector employment as opposed to the next largest employer, the NHS with 162,191 full time equivalents, 32.2 per cent of the 503,700 people employed in Scottish devolved public bodies. The big battalions of the Scottish public sector unions have their bases here in local government, in particular Unison which represents most non-teaching staff; teachers are mainly represented by the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS).

In so far as there has been a discussion around how we resist effectively at the local level, it has taken the form of an almost nostalgic call for the kind of strategies that emerged during the anti cuts fights of the Thatcher era. Where are the pamphlets calling on councilors to set illegal budgets, or to resign en masse? Where are the angry left councils leading the way? Where are the angry unions demanding resistance? In response to that last question, you could at least point to the decision by the Unison Scotland’s Council for a day of action and their support for councils setting needs budget – at least some way to a strategy for involving local elected representatives in the process. But in assessing union responses you would need to factor in the call from EIS for unelected boards to take responsibility for education; this seems to be aimed at ring fencing education spending rather than either enhancing democracy or supporting a general mobilisation against the cuts.

By now you will have guessed where I am going with this argument. We seem to be working on a set of suppositions that are no longer sustainable. In relation to the response of unions and community groups I think the anger is latent. Here Alex Salmond and the SNP government have played a blinder. The offer of £70m to councils to freeze Council Tax for the fourth successive year in exchange for a 2.6 per cent cut in their grant, totaling £540m as opposed to 6.4 per cent, if they refuse, has punctured the mood for immediate resistance in the wider community. However, as far as councils are concerned, the problem is much deeper and closely connected to the fate of the Labour Party. Firstly it has to be acknowledged that Labour no longer has a monopoly of power in Scottish local government. The introduction of STV mean that the number of councils it controlled fell from 15 prior to the election in 2007 to three currently. But it is not only Labour’s lack of council control that matters in relation to its capacity to fight cuts; it is the abandonment of social democracy, both the ‘social’ and the ‘democracy’ as the, admittedly elastic, ideology that held the Labour Party together. By that I mean, although there was always considerable room for maneuver, there was, historically a desire to use local government both to extend the public domain and to make local services a matter for democratic discussion not market transaction.

According to Knox’s and MacKinlay’s *The Re-Making of Scottish Labour in the 1930s*, “Since its formation Labour had viewed the state in an ambiguous way at both local and national level. Municipal socialism was a dominant part of Labour’s strategy for social change and any ‘municipalisation was socialism’ as far as it was concerned.” The residual commitment to this position, however weakened by disappointments, failures and political timidity in the post war period was the political basis of the resistance to Thatcher’s cuts in the 1980s. It is not only that this ideological commitment has by and large been expunged from Labour’s thinking but Labour in power under Blair and Brown became the instrument of transforming local government into an agent of neo-liberal proselytising at local level, with a mission to change citizens to ‘customers’ and democratic accountability to the parlance of customer service. Labour’s 1999 white paper, *Modernising Government* sought to bring about three changes in government in general, but it is not difficult to see their particular relevance for local government. The paper argued that there should be a more participatory role for the public to tackle what it described as paternalism; that there should be a move to executive-led councils as opposed to the traditional committee structure. This has affected all councils in England but in Scotland councils had a choice and only some, like Glasgow, chose ‘cabinet style’ government. The third change was an end to tax and spend.

Despite the differences between the systems in England and Scotland and despite the different political leaderships in post devolution Scotland, the tentacles of Modernising Government have reached out to throttle local democracy. Of course like much of New Labour rhetoric what appears to be an appeal to prudence and respect for local taxation, the injunction to end tax and spend is an essential part of reducing the autonomy of local government (not that there was any real evidence of excess according to local government expert Arthur Midwinter. You may recall that the first act of defiance by Labour-led councils in the eighties was to raise rates to defend services. The intention of a more strategic, business-like (in the literal sense of that term) approach to running local government through cabinet as opposed to full council and committee, is premised on the assumption that the committee system is associated with the sclerotic bureaucracy necessary to ensure accountability of officers and councillors to their electorates. It is the issue of accountability more than any other that we have experienced a quiet top-down revolution in local government. Under the guise of being more responsive to Council Tax payers and giving a more participative role to the wider community, including, of course the business community, democratic accountability has been hedged in. Councils have moved from being service providers to being ‘enablers’ often abandoning service provision in favour of outsourcing to private or third sector bodies.

Councillors have been helped on their way to this position by a series of legislative changes designed to transform local authorities into what Elaine Kamarck, former advisor to Bill Clinton, calls a ‘performance managed bureaucracy’. According to Kamark this is characterised by public sector organisations where budget rules, personnel rules and procurement rules etc are traded off for flexibility – hence the end to decent conditions for local government workers; where they use outcome or output performance measures – not manifesto commitments; where performance measures act as market proxies and customer service is used to model organisational behaviour – the citizen becomes customer. In relation to the last two points, The Best Value framework introduced as part of The Local Government in Scotland Act 2003 was designed to achieve exactly these and this has been further embedded through the introduction of the Public Sector Improvement Framework (PSIF) based on the European Foundation for Quality Management (EFQM) quality model whose roots can be found in the US Baldrige award. This award was named after Malcolm Baldrige, who served as United States Secretary of Commerce during the Reagan administration, from 1981 until 1987. In other words it is suffused the values and practices of corporate capital. The Best Value framework has been subsumed in the PSIF. The consequence of these changes can be seen in a report based on studies of local authorities in New Zealand and Scotland, sponsored by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (

“The major result, in terms of managerial and organisational changes, was that of a move away from old-style bureaucratic management to a more responsive style of management. This was a development common to local authorities included in this study, whether rural or urban, and whether located in Scotland or New Zealand…

  • a shift from service providers to being enablers, by outsourcing/contracting services;
  • a move away from a set of values which were internal, and driven by professional interests within local authorities, rather than the needs of the citizen as ‘customer’;
  • a rejection of short termism and a desire to take a more strategic perspective on the activities of the local authority; and
  • the promotion of a corporate philosophy and perspective rather than narrow, sectional interests.”

If that were not enough to ensure council compliance with the underlying drive to a fully marketised future, since 2007 councillors not only receive a salary but are required to engage with a Continuous Professional Development framework. The development programme launched in September 2010 sets out areas of development typical for an aspiring middle manager in the private sector for example ‘Promoting Change and Improvement’, ‘Working Collaboratively’, ‘Effective Leadership’. These concepts do not come in an ideologically neutral form. They will be ‘taught’ within the ideological boundaries set by Best Value. In short, the notion that as in the eighties we can look to Labour (or SNP councillors for that matter) to lead or even play an important part in the struggle against cuts is fanciful; both are enmeshed in the language and thinking of New Public Management (for whch read market dominance) that permeates local government.

This does not mean that the game is up and there is nothing we can do at local level. We can and should still call on Labour and SNP councillors to support creating Needs Based budgets, for example, even although we know we will not win majorities for that position. Some at least will join the few Greens and other independent socialists already willing to stage serious resistance to the cuts and they will be welcome additions to our campaign. Secondly we should use the space that the SNP’s budget dodge has given us to continue to do two things. First we must campaign to heighten awareness of the implications of cuts at local level and argue for practicable alternatives. Here I think the Peoples Charter can play a role. We should aim for thousands of signatures to be delivered to the Petitions Committee of the new parliament of 2011 and we should ask every candidate for the Scottish General election to sign up and publicise those who do and those who do not. And we should begin a serious discussion about local democracy in Scotland from a left perspective. We cannot ignore the fact that we now have a Scottish Government that provides around 80 per cent of funding for local government and we need to determine how we best achieve delivery of essential services under real democratic control. In short we need to develop a credible alternative vision that will motivate the building of a new socialist movement for a new Scotland based on the war that we will need to fight rather than the one we may have wished for.