by Michael Makin
This 500 page book is fragmentary and disjointed. Packed with detail, it often lacks coherence. And, yet, it should be valued, and the work that’s gone into it admired. Much of the material is stimulating and useful, and its political objectives are sound.
Essentially an attack on current and recent neo-liberal policy as it has affected local councils, Peter Latham’s book illustrates the continuities between Thatcherism, New Labour and the current Conservative government.
Its historical content is in sections tracing back the roots of current policies, and in chapters setting out the theories Latham identifies with.
There is thorough critique of key approaches now shaping local government in Britain, such as the shift of decision making powers from all elected councillors to executives and elected mayors; marketisation and privatisation; and the wider ideological influence of ‘business values’.
There is comparative material drawn from diverse locales: South Africa, India, Venezuela and Brazil.
And there are ‘strategies to defeat big business control’, and to get to a point where local democracy could really work to meet the needs of ordinary people. Latham’s main approach is to present well worked out alternative programmes, such as those developed by the Communist Party and the Left Economics Advisory Panel; counterpose these to current policies; and call for ‘support’ for socialist lines.
Regrettably, this middle manager in a local council, using a pen name for contractual reasons, found many of the proposed grand policy approaches lacking in credibility.
More modest suggestions collated by Latham actually seemed more ‘dangerous’. For example, if backbench councillors more often carried out detailed impact assessments of how current policies affect jobs, services and communities, and publicised the results, this could highlight the actual consequences of ‘neo liberalism’ at local level, and provide a basis for fragile but genuine community based campaigns.
Such assessments could also expose the deceptive rhetoric of national policy: its ‘empowerment’ on the terms of the powerful; its ‘efficiency’ which shovels public funds to private finance companies; its ‘localism’ as determined by Westminster. It will be in exploiting such contradictions in small scale but concrete ways that the first real steps to alternatives are taken.