My wife and I were visiting England when the Labor Party suffered its resounding defeat in the municipal elections held on May Day. Labor’s debacle may offer lessons for us and our own politicians.
We spent most of our visit at the North Oxford home of Hubert Allen, an expert on the problems of local government. A consultant to governments in Europe and Africa, he shared with us his understanding of the reasons for Labor’s overwhelming defeat. Some of the most important, in his view, are built into the structure of government in England today, and are not party-specific. As he wrote in Cultivating the Grass Roots: Why Local Government Matters, “In England ... during recent decades local government has lost responsibility for over 90 functions: trunk roads, electricity, gas, hospitals, public health, water and sewerage, river pollution and many more. All these formerly local functions are now controlled by centrally appointed ‘quangos’ (‘quasi-autonomous, non-governmental organizations’) which lack any direct accountability to the citizenry. Moreover, through tighter and tighter controls local autonomy has largely disappeared in such fields as education, housing, police, and capital financing, and even the size of the annual budget.”
As he sees it, regardless of which party is in power, too many of the decision-making groups in Whitehall (where power is concentrated) do not talk to each other. The result is that unless elected political leadership is extremely alert, policies are adopted which are uncoordinated and incompletely thought out. Too many new laws deal with only one aspect of a problem, and no consideration is given to possible unintended consequences. This is exacerbated by attitudes another scholar describes as “elite contempt for local government.” Bottom line: ordinary citizens are frozen out of decisions affecting them.
In April a development company named Parkridge Holdings, which is partly American-owned and has offices in London, Warsaw, Barcelona, Paris, and Moscow, announced its intention to construct an “eco-town” on open land near Weston-on-the-Green, an Oxfordshire village some 15 miles from Oxford’s city center. Weston Otmoor, the proposed town, is to include 10,000-15,000 homes, two secondary schools, and eight primary schools.
Purposely keeping out of the public eye, Parkridge Holdings secretly negotiated options to buy thousands of acres from farmers in the area. At the same time, it lobbied officials of the Housing Ministry in London to approve its plan for the new town. (We’ve seen similar maneuvers in Berkeley and Albany.) The three local governments affected—Weston-on-the-Green, Bicester, and Charlton-on-Otmoor—did not learn about the developer’s plans until the Housing Ministry published a “short list” of 15 possible new eco-towns, 10 of which will be built.
As reported by the Oxford Times, opposition appeared quickly. Local residents organized as “the Weston Front Action Group.” They soon found themselves supported by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which says 80 percent of the land described by Parkridge Holdings as “brownfields” is actually healthy land where crops are growing today. One-third of the new town is to be built in Oxford’s cherished Greenbelt. It is also to include the entire Woodside Meadows Nature Reserve, created by the national government as an area of “Special Scientific Interest” for the protection of endangered plants and animals.
Other voices have pointed out more suitable locations in Oxfordshire for ecologically sound housing development. Hubert Allen showed us two of them: a surplus American air base and an old abandoned factory complex. Unlike the Oxford Greenbelt, these really are brownfields. Key people at the Housing Ministry apparently talked to the developer but not to their own colleagues. They did not even visit Weston-on-the-Green, an hour’s drive from London. And the Housing Ministry did not communicate with any of the local city councils. The Labor Party reaped the antagonism generated by these proceedings.
Final approval for Weston-Otmoor has not been issued, and the Ministry has promised “full local consultation.” But as the Oxford Times wrote, “the big question” is whether the views of the local governments “ultimately matter.” If the development is approved, the Weston Front Action Group stands ready to take it to court.
War and taxes
Early in the administration of Gordon Brown, the current prime minister, Labor abolished “the 10 pence tax rate.” The prime minister said this reform would boost the average income of the poorest 30 percent of English families by three pounds per week. In fact, the reform was partly successful: it did benefit families with children. But an unintended consequence was that millions of young workers, childless couples and pensioners wound up with really big tax increases. Some pensioners had to pay an increase of almost 500 pounds ($1,000 U.S.).
Taxes came due shortly before the election, and the anger of working class voters promptly showed itself at the ballot box. In the aftermath—too late to help defeated Labor candidates for local offices—the government declared its intention to compensate those who had been injured.
Throughout the campaign the Iraq war simmered in the background. It continues to alienate intellectuals and Labor’s idealistic middle class members, many of whom had hoped Gordon Brown would firmly repudiate Tony Blair’s war policy and take active steps to extricate Britain from Iraq. When it became clear that this would not happen, many of them gave up on Labor and stayed home on election day. Without its idealists, the Labor Party does not win elections.
The London mayoralty
London is the largest city in Europe and the most glittering prize in English municipal politics. Even Americans who don’t follow English elections noticed the media coverage of the London mayoral race. Ken Livingston, the incumbent, was the Labor candidate. He is famous in the U.S. for his efforts to reduce automobile traffic in central London. The Torys chose an off-beat figure named Boris Johnson to run against him. He had a reputation as a witty, undisciplined, and unpredictable politician.
Johnson’s violations of the rules of political piety have been widely reported. “I’m supporting [our party leadership] out of pure, cynical self-interest,” he said. He also promised men that “Voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M-3.” In the midst of another speech he turned to an aid and said, loudly enough for the crowd to hear, “I can’t remember my position on drugs. What’s my line on drugs?” The Labor establishment wouldn’t take Johnson seriously. But Londoners, in their current mood, voted him in.
After losing local offices all across the country, Ken Livingston’s defeat in London was especially disheartening for Labor. It was the first time since Tony Blair’s star rose above Downing Street that Labor finished last in a national election. Most English political commentators believe this augurs a Conservative victory in the Parliamentary elections two years from now. To stay in power, Labor needs to get its act together.