Nick Clegg's speech at the weekend on how the Lib Dems might set about reforming public services is a welcome first step from him in putting forward a Liberal narrative about the changes we wish to see. Certainly we will need to give a clearer route map as to how we reach our destination, but the direction of travel is clear.
Clegg was talking about moving towards greater empowerment of people, encouraging a bottom-up approach to schools and the health service, to encourage diversity and innovation. This is not a break with the past, as some have depicted it, but to me is wholly in keeping with the party's traditions, stretching at least as far back as the famous 'Community Politics' resolution adopted by the Liberal Party in 1970: "Our role as political activists is to help people take and use power within their communities." (If you want to find out more about what community politics is, this is an excellent place to start - slightly dated in one or two respects, but still an excellent guide.)
This is not the illusory Tory talk of choice and diversity. All too often that masks choice solely for those with the money or resources to make that choice effective, or alternatively is a cloak for removing services from local control and giving a greater role for central government, as was the case with grant-maintained schools when the Tories were in power. Indeed, much current Tory thinking on education seems a rehash of those policies from the past. Clegg was right to highlight that the Tories are interested only in escape routes for the few, not social mobility for everyone.
Clegg was also right to note that if we are to empower people, a revitalisation of local democracy is a key part of that process, with more powers, more control over their own funding, and greater democracy for local authorities. But that is by no means enough. The liberal commitment to empowering people doesn't just stop at the town hall door. We need to find more ways of involving people directly in the running of public services, and Clegg's 'free schools' idea is one possible way of doing this.
But what will be vital here is ensuring that public services are accountable to the people who use them. There's little point in taking services out of local democratic control if they are then responsible to a vocal minority or a privileged few, and ignoring the needs or wishes of the majority. We must recognise that while local government is far from perfect - all too often it can be remote and bureaucratic - it does at least provide a means of democratic accountability, at least in theory. However, accountability is not the sole preserve of local authorities, and it might well be the case that a school run on co-operative principles (which would be one logical development of Clegg's free schools idea) would be more accountable to the people it serves than local councillors. They are elected to decide a variety of issues, possibly as a result of their party label, and are possibly not very well known in their wards.
Assuming more flesh is put on the bones, I think the Lib Dems are likely to have a coherent and distinctively Liberal take on reform of public services come the next election. Empowerment and diversity are good Liberal themes, but they must also be accompanied by accountability.
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