Is the pandemic creating a new centrifugal force in British politics?

Two stories have jumped out at me from this morning’s news. The main headlines report a series of challenges to the government’s decision not to close down schools despite the rapid spread of the Pandemic, coming from local authorities, such as Brighton and Liverpool, speaking in concert with the teachers’ unions, who have taken legal action in an attempt to force the government to disclose the scientific basis for its insistence that they should remain open – the first main story. The second is the report of a survey that suggests that if a UK general election were to be held now, the Tory majority would be wiped out.

Could it be that one of the many unexpected political impacts of the pandemic is a reversal of the tendency, present since the Thatcher Era, to concentrate ever more power in the hands of central government? The manifest failure of the Johnson government to provide effective leadership and its repeated attempts to deflect responsibility for failures in the management of the spread of the virus onto individuals have left a policy vacuum. With a clear crisis in survival for vulnerable citizens, local authorities and voluntary organisations have been sucked in to fill this vacuum, setting up a range of creative initiatives, often building on community solidarity, to provide the essential services that are so desperately needed.

Last year, this led to a change in the tone of the bargaining between central and local authorities, with some, notably Greater Manchester, asserting their demands with a new-found sense of entitlement. Might this new muscle-power, backed by popular support, be a sign that we are entering a new era of local experimentation – a kind of bottom-up building of local initiatives that could be precursors to a more equal post-Covid society?

Looking for a historical parallel took me right back to the middle of the 19th century – in particular the period following two of the most serious cholera epidemics – the 1848-9 epidemic (which caused 53,292 deaths) and that of 1853-54, which caused 20,099. The establishment, by pioneering epidemiologist, John Snow of the link between the spread of cholera and the presence of sewage in drinking water, was one of the triggers for a major programme of sewer-building in London, under the the direction of Joseph Bazalgette, (the other trigger was the ‘great stink’ of 1858, which got right up the noses of the MPs forced to endure it in the Palace of Westminster).

But perhaps more interesting was what happened in Birmingham, where Joseph Chamberlain developed a much more holistic model of municipal management of public health. Having pioneered the provision of public education, co-founding the Birmingham Education Society in 1867, he became mayor of Birmingham in 1873. Under his leadership, the City embarked on a radical reform programme, including in 1875 buying up the existing sewerage companies to form a single municipally-owned sewage system. This followed a similar exercise in which, the previous year, they had consolidated the city’s gas supply, purchasing the existing gas suppliers and merging them under local authority control. This was followed by an early experiment in the provision of public housing as well as the establishment of a public library and a public museum. Although sometimes dubbed ‘municipal socialism’, Chamberlain’s approach was in many ways highly paternalistic, but it does supply a prominent example of the the ways in which public policies were pioneered at a local level in Britain, with similar, if less well-known examples to be found in many other cities – to which many inscriptions on public buildings and statues in public parks still bear testimony.

The cholera epidemics did not just inspire local initiatives in the provision of infrastructure; they also stimulated new forms of social insurance. Take the case of James Gillman, vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Lambeth, of whom it is written that (reminding us of some of the heroic NHS workers in our own locked down times) during the cholera epidemic

‘…for three weeks he never returned to his home for fear of carrying the contagion to his family, and during this time he slept on a sofa in the surgery of the parish doctor. His experiences led him to consider the possibility of providing a fund for stricken families on the principle of life insurance. Gillman worked out his scheme with Henry Harben, who was then the secretary of a small and struggling insurance company which was called the Prudential. The new scheme was based on the weekly payment of small sums from one penny upwards, and in 1850 Gillman became the Chairman of the new company. At his death in 1877 the weekly payments amounted to over two million pounds per annum‘.

The latter part of the 19th century was thus a laboratory in which many 20th century developments were trialled, some of which prefigured important elements in the the mid-20th century welfare state, solidified in its institutions. Here we can point not just to municipal advances in the establishment of new utilities, providing such things as gas, water, electricity, telephone networks and transport services but also health and education services. The importance of these local blueprints can be seen in the influence of radical local experiments on the NHS, which was partly inspired by the Workmen’s Medical Aid Society originally set up in 1890 to serve miners and steelworkers in Aneurin Bevan’s home town of Tredegar.

Since that 20th welfare state was founded, its public and universal character has been chipped away at by over four decades of neoliberal policies that have handed more and more of it over to private companies a a source of profit. Indeed, in the current pandemic, the conservative government hasn’t even bothered to pretend that it is following fair procedures in the awarding of contracts, brazenly ignoring tendering rules as it dishes them out to the political cronies of Johnson and Cummings. In the meanwhile, the neoliberal common sense that the most efficient way to run a country is to leave everything to the market has exploded. The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that state action is an absolute necessity to keep citizens safe and manage the distribution of goods and services.

Could the government’s manifest failure to deliver these things open up an opportunity for municipalities once again to take the lead in pointing an alternative way forward?

In my book, Reinventing the Welfare State: Digital Platforms and Public Policies I argue that the moment has come for precisely such a development. The conditions are now ripe for local authorities to build on the commitment, engagement and creativity of their citizens and, using the new digital technologies, to start developing prefigurative experimental models of a better, more equal and more inclusive society.

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