Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of British politics knows the difference between the two combatants in what sadly remains a two party state.
Labour and other left wing parties pursue a socialist agenda, where we all contribute to a central pot to provide services for all depending on their need.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, preach a doctrine of self sufficiency. The say that people who work hard and ‘get on’ should be able to take care of all their own needs, including health care, housing, education and pensions.
The role of government in either scenario varies in that, under a truly socialist administration, economic and social factors are controlled through the intervention of more centralised control mechanisms. Whereas a Conservative ideology is to create the conditions for everyone to achieve this self financing nirvana without the need for the state to do much except maintain access to a free market which will theoretically maintain the natural order of things.
Both parties have of course had to modify those ideals to some extent to appeal to voters hovering around the middle ground. Hence the rise of more centrist politics over the past few decades.
But both ends of our political spectrum have been moving further apart of late, with the Conservatives heading further right in an attempt to head off encroachment from UKIP, while Labour has been pushed more to the left by the rise of parties like the Greens. Yes you have us Greens to thank for Jeremy Corbyn!
What they have both shared to some extent, and something that has certainly been Green Party policy for some time, is a return of power to a local level, allowing local decisions to be taken by those who will be most affected by them.
Localism has become a popular, one might even say populist, rallying cry over several elections now, but the Conservatives have really taken it to heart with a string of policies aimed ostensibly at giving more control to local authorities and other groups.
I say ‘ostensibly’ because, as with many Tory policies, there’s a hidden agenda in all this. It’s about shifting blame, and up to now it’s worked pretty well.
Firstly we had the Health and Social Care Act in 2012 which gave over almost full control of NHS services to Clinical Commissioning Groups and Trusts. The act had the added sting of opening up health services to the free market, or at least an approximation of one, and effectively removing the obligation for central government to provide free universal healthcare. But of course for the Conservatives these were minor details that they hoped we wouldn’t notice, and on the whole we obliged.
There have been other moves towards apparent localism, including police services being devolved to elected commissioners, something else most people have largely shrugged their shoulders at.
George Osborne’s announcement that local authorities would be allowed to keep 100% of earnings from business rates was a further plank in this mantra of local control, even though it came at the cost of the removal of almost all financial support from central government.
All of these initiatives came with a similar catch. The most obvious of which was a reduction in central government funding and a requirement to make ‘savings’ which to those of us fluent in Tory double-speak meant yet more cuts. The clever little trick in all this is to allow central government to set funding limits and then leave local politicians to deal with the flak when the kitty runs dry.
Whilst there may have been some lip service paid to the concept of localism, the real agenda has been to give the government an arms-length deniability when the crunch came, and recent events have made those cracks evident to everyone.
We’ve already seen local health trusts and CCGs being given the task of rationalising health spending under the new regime of cuts being demanded in the guise of sustainability plans. This has enabled Tory MPs to cry crocodile tears at the closure of local health services which they have blamed on local mismanagement rather than a national agenda.
Cuts to police numbers were directly criticised after the London attacks along with the depletion of fire crews, particularly in London. Boris Johnson slashed numbers there during his time as Mayor, and this was highlighted as a major concern during the Grenfell Tower disaster.
One senior fire fighter described the skeletal nature of appliance crewing as forcing him to make a choice between fighting the fire or rescuing residents. In the old days they could have done both, but now it was one or the other. Individual firefighters also worked well over the 4 hours of direct exposure to a fire dictated by safety concerns, with many of them pulling 12 hour shifts in an attempt to keep the numbers up.
Many questions remain as to how cuts in local authority funding led to cheaper, perhaps sub-standard, materials being used in the refurbishment of buildings like Grenfell, whilst the re-housing of victims of the fire and the wholesale evacuation of residents of other suspect blocks has brought with it new financial challenges for local authorities.
Central government has provided some extra cash for the immediate problems all of this has thrown up, but there are still questions over who will pay for the removal of cladding, the fitting of fire suppression measures, and the temporary re-housing of hundreds, if not thousands of affected residents.
The government has so far agreed to pay for the testing of the cladding panels, but as test after test comes back with ever more alarming results, the bill for dealing with this problem looks like running into many millions, if not billions. If you listen carefully you can hear a distinct sound of back-pedalling coming from The Treasury.
There’s a price to be paid for unbridled austerity and it’s only when the tightrope local authorities have been forced to walk is itself cut away that we see the true cost to us all. There have certainly been no reassurances from the PM or the Chancellor about where the money will be coming from to carry out remedial works and keep evacuees housed during essential works to deal with fire safety issues.
If the Tories can find pots of cash under the magic money tree to bung a bribe to the DUP to prop up their shaky minority government, they can certainly afford to support local councils and authorities to clear up the mess that they have had a major hand in creating.
The resignation of a few Tory councillors and local leaders prepared to fall on their swords for the greater good of the party cannot be allowed to divert attention away from the role played by Tory ideology in impoverishing local services under the masthead of faux localism. As with healthcare, education, policing and other essential services, we mustn’t allow the blame to be shifted to local councils alone.
Passing the buck has become a major government activity in recent years and we’re about to see exactly where that buck will stop. The ploy of localism is being revealed in all it’s Tory glory and we need to ensure that the blame for short changing local residents falls where it belongs.
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