One of the main achievements of the government during October has been to create a hugely popular heroic politician. Their only problem is that this new hero isn’t one of their own.
And it gets worse because not only is he a Labour politician but, in the process, Westminster has legitimised local government despite having previously barely recognised it as having any legitimacy at all.
Step forward Andy Burnham.
So how has one of the most centralising governments in modern history contrived to make a local government figure so popular? The answer won’t surprise you at all. They did it by mistaking a clever practical device – the local lockdown – for a piece of their strategy.
The local lockdown policy (the Prime Minister’s beloved ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy) was specifically created to place responsibility for the impact of lockdown onto people who were not part of central government. Suffering the pain of not being able to go down the pub would be seen by the public as being the responsibility of local, not central, government. This would be a way of continuing the necessity of lockdown without either the expense or blame resting on central government.
You may remember that this policy had some problems at the very beginning.
Back at the end of June, as the government was too quickly pulling us all out of national lockdown, you will remember that the Prime Minister referred to local lockdowns as his “whack-a-mole strategy” As I said at the time,
“When the Prime Minister refers to your locality as a mole to be whacked does he expect this to enhance your sense of civic duty?
The core of the problem for the current test, track and trace system – and one that is exemplified by what has happened in Leicester – is the fact that while the data is owned centrally we all agree that action has to take place locally.
So when – at 1am on Monday June 29 – the mayor of Leicester,Sir Peter Soulsby, receives a report from the centre detailing problems in his city that may require him to continue elements of lockdown, it is the first time he gets to know about the data. (Although central government leaked announcements last week).
Peter Soulsby reacted to this 1am delivery by saying that it is the first time he has seen the data. “When I look at their report, as I have done over the last few hours, it is not justified by any of the figures they have let us have. There is very little substance in it.
I have to say if they are talking to us on the basis of this report they are talking to us on the basis of something hastily cobbled together, incredibly superficial and clearly based on a misunderstanding or a failure to understand the city.”
Before that day, very few people outside of Leicester had ever heard of Peter Soulsby. After it a few million had.
As regular readers will know, the problem for the government is that a previous Conservative government voted through the “Lansley reforms” of the NHS in 2012. These moved the responsibility for public health away from the NHS to the top tier of local government. So during the Covid crisis local government responsibility for public health has a legal basis which gives every major local authority a duty to carry out certain actions.
Every local authority has the foundations for its own test and trace system. They have been using these skills and capabilities to trace people with notifiable infectious diseases. Most of us would recognise – there’s clue is in the word ‘local’ – that local knowledge would be of assistance in tracing people who had been in contact with infection.
Consequently, since the beginning of the pandemic, the UK government has not, in terms of public health, ‘run’ the UK. There were alternative power bases at local level where there existed a legal duty to protect their public from the Covid crisis.
Whilst these alternative power bases were legal, so far as this entitled, insurgent government (see my previous post for more on this theme) was concerned they were not legitimate. So these alternative power bases have been at best ignored and at worst battered for trying to achieve something different.
If, back in June, the UK government had chosen to maintain its strategic approach to the virus at a national (English) level these distributed local authority power bases could have been ignored. But in June 2020, desperately not wanting to impose another national lockdown, the government started to develop a series of local lockdowns. Starting with Leicester and evolving into a system of sub-regional tiers, they determined that the main activity of national government would be to impose a series of tiered lockdowns in localities.
Whilst they undoubtedly believed that this move would save them from having to take responsibility nationally, the moment they decided on local lockdowns they moved into the realm of local government distributed power that they don’t ‘run’. Moving to local lockdowns gave recognition to a power base – local government – that was established by a previous Conservative government and which they do not want entering public consciousness.
This move has prompted strong media recognition of a power that is both local and external to this Government.
The strategic choice to reject national lockdowns as a means of halting the spread of the virus has – in terms of media interest – empowered local government as a form of power that Westminster does not control. This strategic error means that for the foreseeable future they will need to place power bases that they don’t control into the media spotlight.
So enter Andy Burnham – now well known outside of Greater Manchester for passionately looking after his people.
But having made this strategic error the government hates the consequences. It puts it in the position of having to negotiate daily with external powers which it does not regard as legitimate. Every day, as Westminster treats local government as an unnecessary pain, we can see the consequences of this.
And what does this feel like for local government?
Most of us spend most of our time in Zoom and Teams sessions and are getting used to remembering to mute and unmute as a part of the etiquette. Jennifer Williams of the Manchester Evening News reports that council leaders logged into a Microsoft Teams call with Secretary of State Robert Jenrick found that they could not unmute themselves.
Last week I wrote about the way in which this Government sees itself as being the only legitimate power in the country – and this is not a bad example of it.
But it’s their own fault (even if they want to keep it quiet).
They have empowered local government by their own policies.
 Interesting to note that as a new young MP the current Secretary of State, Matt Hancock, voted for these reforms empowering local government on several occasions.