Reviews

by Andrew Coulson, Institute of Local Government Studies The University of Birmingham

With 430 large pages, 1,800 references, 14 appendixes and an unusual bibliography, this is no small contribution. It discusses local government in the context of Marxist, or Gramscian, theories of the state. It includes considerable empirical material about local government, mostly from Britain, but also from South Africa, Cuba, Venezuela, Porto Alegre in Brazil and Kerala in India. The author was associated with the Labour Campaign for Open Local Government, which campaigned successfully against directly elected mayors and in favour of councils being governed by the committee system, and many references are to the publications of members of the Communist Party of Britain - but the Foreword is by the left-wing Labour MP Kevin Hopkins, and the book is sponsored by Croydon Trades Council, the Labour Land Campaign and various trade union and related interests.
Few will read this book from cover to cover, or agree with all that it asserts. But the treatment is so different from conventional approaches that most readers will find some original insights - not least from its willingness to be critical equally of the neo-liberal policies of Mrs Thatcher and the current Coalition in power in Westminster on the one hand, and on the other, of Tony Blair and New Labour, and especially the business interests that lie behind them, epitomised by the board members and publications of the New Local Government Network.

 

The writing is uneven. A chapter can move from heavy theory to straightforward description. There is much repetition, glaring errors that should have been picked up by proof reading, and the structure of the argument only becomes clear when it is summarised in the penultimate chapter. The empirical material about the corruption associated with elected mayors in the US, and in Doncaster and Stoke, the campaigns against directly elected mayors in England, and the moves towards the privatisation of welfare state services and the involvement of private companies, is of particular interest.

The first chapter starts with a theoretical exposition of Marxist theories, including the author's distinction between 'appearance' and 'reality' ('For example, New Labour's community empowerment rhetoric (''the appearance'') obscures the ''reality'' that US-style directly elected mayors with cabinets are the optimal internal management arrangement for privatised local government services' - p. 2). The next chapter continues this line of argument by accusing the orthodox defenders and theorists of local government, from John Stuart Mill, through T.H. Green, L.T. Hobhouse and most of the Fabians, of undermining local direct democracy in favour of forms of local government that are subservient to central government, through the doctrine of ultra vires that permits local authorities to do only what they are enabled to do by central government, and central control over sources of tax and revenue. He quotes W.M.J Mackenzie to the effect that this led to a situation where 'there is no theory of local government' and the attack by Rod Rhodes on the 'institutionalist tradition in public administration . . .with its distaste for theory, focus on institutions, and predilection for administrative engineering . . . that . . . began a long and lingering death in the 1960s' (p. 14).

Chapter 3 sketches a theory of the state, and within that of local government, based on class struggles, drawing extensively on the little-known 1958 study The British State by James Harvey and Katherine Hood, and Gramsci's theory of state monopoly capitalism - which it illustrates with a lengthy history of the current banking and finance crisis. The next chapter shows the inadequacies of earlier neo-Marxist theories of local government - those of Ralph Miliband, Cynthia Cockburn, Peter Saunders and Alan Cawson, and Simon Duncan and Mark Goodwin, while giving qualified support to the work of Dexter Whitfield.

Part 2 of the book, from Chapter 5 on, starts with a history of local government from the Middle Ages to the 1990s, but then proceeds, in the next chapter, to an attack on the Local Government Act of 2000 and especially the lobby group, the New Local Government Network, which campaigns for directly elected mayors and the involvement of private capital in the provision of local services (three Appendixes list the NLGN's corporate partners, its subscribing local authorities and its board members). The issues raised by directly elected mayors are considered in Chapter 7 - with discussions of corrupt mayors in Spain, France and the US - before considering the UK (the corruption of the Poulson and T. Dan Smith affairs, and then the directly elected mayors of the UK, with special treatment reserved for Doncaster and Stoke). Chapter 8 looks at the limitations of the sources of finance for British local government - but gets somewhat sidetracked in a discussion of the consequences of investing in Icelandic banks. Chapter 9 is a well researched summary of the case against the use of the Private Finance Initiative as a source of capital funding, and of various forms of partnership - leading to a discussion of councils including Essex, Barnet and Suffolk, which are set on delivering most of their services through contracts with private companies. Chapter 10 looks at partnerships and PFI provision around the world, and especially in South Africa. Chapter 11 analyses the elections in the UK in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and considers the implications of the declines in party membership and influence. Chapter 12, the last in Part 2, lays the foundation for a discussion in the following chapter of annual land value taxation, presented as the best means of raising money for local government. This is followed by a chapter of international case studies of local communities that have discretion and control; and then, in Chapter 15, which could well have been the final chapter, there is a summary of the whole argument of the book, a resume of the Marxist theory behind it, another long discussion of the international crisis of finance capital, and proposals for a people's charter and enhanced powers for workers' organisations. The book ends with a blistering attack on the 'big society' and other proposals of the Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition for the provision of local services - and of New Labour's complicity in policies leading up to these and its implicit support for them.

This book is a dog's breakfast, rich in ideas but poor in the organisation of its material. It will not be every reader's cup of tea; but by providing a way of looking at local government that is almost completely outside the mainstream, it can help even those who do not agree with its positions to see the issues in a new light. Much of its analysis could be the subject of further research. It is therefore a book that should be taken seriously. Maybe in a few years' time the author can produce a second edition that updates readers on the working out of the dire consequences so strongly predicted here, gives more help to a reader new to this material and seeking to understand the argument, and is better edited.