Monday, 17 October 2011

Populism and Party Conferences.

Under the policy of Localism - who is responsible for these?
Party Conference season has come and gone. All the parties attempt to walk the line between pleasing their members, who hold strong and often politically inconvenient views, and the wider public. Sadly the result of this seemingly unsquarable circle is often superficial populism. All parties do it but it particularly unedifying when public spending commitments are unveiled in an attempt to feed populist demands.

The introduction of the principle of localism was intended to mean councils had responsibility for spending their budgets, and take both the credit and the blame for those decisions. In a time of reducing budgets there is a great deal more blame than credit to be had. But last week ministers announced £1billion of spending by local government. The intention is to say that ministers of the governing parties - and not your council - are responsible for the frequency of your bin collections and the size of your council tax bill.

This week sees Eric Pickles find a quarter of a billion pounds to get the English weekly bin collections. I walked round a deprived estate in Bradford recently where the council was cutting community transport, youth training, back to work schemes etc, etc. At no point did I think “what these people need is weekly bin collections”.  My feeling is that if Bradford Council were given the choice how to spend their share of this money that might be their view too. But there is a group in society for whom this is an obsession and a quarter of a billion pounds was found to please them. 

There were rumours that the Chancellor wanted to announce an end to the top rate of income tax, but was thwarted. Instead he announced that councils will be given £805 million to freeze council tax. Strictly this is a matter for Eric Pickles’ department but presentation means the popular policies must be divvied out. As Council Tax is regressive we should welcome the fact it is frozen. We also need to remember the people who have been hit the hardest by housing benefit and other cuts do not pay Council Tax – so this freeze is good especially for households in the lower middle, but the poorest won’t see any of the £800million. The policy will be popular – but possibly not because of its effect on the injustice of the poor paying more tax than the rich.

This post sounds a bit world weary – because it is. The headline popular policy is always revealed with a flourish come Conference time. The eye catching policies will get enthusiasts talking endlessly about positioning, the fate of different factions within the parties, how this will play in opinion polls..... Journalists will produce many stories about how these policies will affect their idea of a worthy family, or how it will help the economy.....I think the rest will be pleased or annoyed depending on their point of view but be united in losing another little bit of respect for a process which make decisions based on populism and cheering party faithful.

My - perhaps naive - view is that populism is transient but respect is more important, longer term and built from things more substantial than giving away tit-bits at Conference time. 

Statistics note (I refuse to do a blog post without some): a common trick is to announce money twice. So the £805million announced by the Chancellor may include the £250million announced by Pickles or it may not - the detail won’t be announced until well after the news story has faded away.