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Book review: Taking Power Back

We live in turbulent times. Post financial crash, we have had a prolonged depression and live through a seemingly endless period of austerity. In local government there are unprecedented cuts to local services. Coupled to welfare reform, we have growing social need and rising demand. Local authorities are under the cosh, pedalling hard with an ever diminishing and denuding set of local services. For those of us who believe in local government, these are cursed times.

In a new book, Taking Power Back: putting people in charge of politics, by Simon Parker, we are offered a possible antidote to this sorry state of affairs. Core to his argument is that power has been hoarded by the centre and that ‘there has never been a better time’ for power to be devolved and to come back to the people. Instead of singular top down theories, Parker argues for a new pluralism of experimentation in which the nation and local state should be ‘open and porous’ to change from people on the outside, with the state actively supporting more self-organised activity alongside existing and traditional public services provision. Instead of a society and politics based on a ‘them and us’, this book is about how we can get a bigger us.

I enjoyed this book. It was a refreshing change to much current material on local public services, which is all too often plagued with a policy geek wonkery, laden with technocratic debates about ‘system change’, ‘transformation’ and ‘demand management’. Many are often sucked into a dominant Whitehall ‘there is no alternative to austerity’ narrative which avoids the fundamental questions dealt with in this book, namely, how we get a politics in which society works better.

Parker gives his ideas philosophical backbone and avoids the debates about big or small state, and he swerves us away from technocratic answers. Indeed he bravely calls his ideas something – commonism – a blend of both democratic republicanism where liberty can only be achieved when the least fortunate are giving a hand up and a libertarian socialism, in which the state role is to support individual opportunities. Whilst you might not agree with this, it no doubt creates a more powerful starting point that the narrow local service efficiency debates.

As an experienced director of the think tank the New Local Government Network (NLGN), Parker has used his ‘insider’ experience to populate the book with a range of case studies, interesting pointers and amusing anecdotes. It makes for a relatively easy, informative and useful read, with extensive ideas and practical examples from around Britain and the world. Greater Manchester – arguably the poster child of a devolved alternative to a failed centralism – features strongly.

For me there is much to like and agree with in this book. However, whilst Parker does not deny the need for a retained central and local state in creating standards and fairness, it is a tad overwhelmed by his anti-centralist argument and his zeal to advance the letting go of power and policy. I suppose it’s a question of balance, but clearly in world of growing injustice and deeper divides between haves and have nots, there are significant doubts over how the relinquishing of central power, devolution and reinventing citizenship will achieve more just ends. Indeed in areas where many citizens are already time and resource poor through poverty, it’s rather a cruel deal to task them to start rebuilding an alternative.

For those who are tired of Westminster, central control and a narrative in which there is no alternative to austerity, this book is for you. You won’t agree with everything. Nevertheless, there is a welcome honesty and openness to this book, which deserves debate and consideration.

 

  • Neil McInroy will be discussing Taking Power Back with Simon Parker on October 13 at 6pm in central Manchester. Details here.

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