It isn't necessarily that often that I find myself in agreement with Lord Greaves of Pendle, coming as we do from rather different strands of liberalism. However, I was moved by his letter in this morning's Guardian, attacking a recent proposal by Ruth Kelly (and I do accept that attacking anything that comes from Ruth Kelly is like shooting drugged fish in a small bucket).
Her latest idea is to suggest that local councillors be given a budget, say £10,000, to be spent in the community they serve. The headline sounds quite good but, as usual when the latest New Labour concept taxis to the end of the runway, the devil is in the detail. She seriously proposes that said local councillor can spend the money as he/she so pleases, without any evident control.
Now, given that Labour politicians are having a few problems with, if not actual corruption, than at least the perception of it, you might think that before proposing to give such chunks of money to local politicians, she might actually think through the possible drawbacks.
In most corrupt societies, one of the most obvious signs is where individual politicians can channel spending towards particular groups or places without effective audit. Such patronage encourages those electors who benefit (or perhaps more importantly, might benefit) to remain loyal to an individual whose performance as a whole might not be in the interests of the wider society. Indeed, those who don't benefit, or who see themselves as being unlikely to benefit, will perceive corruption with the cancerous effect that is thus caused to the body politic.
Worse still is the incentive is gives to less then entirely honest individuals to influence the behaviour of an individual who suddenly has largesse to distribute. Not all local councillors have the morals and ethics of a boy scout and putting temptation in the way of some of them is unlikely to be rewarded.
In Southwark, the various Community Councils have funds available to them for use in their area. Accountability is built into the process and regular meetings take place where ordinary residents can come along, put their case, and get support or not according to the merit of their argument and the available funds.
Once again, a Labour politician demonstrates that where localism emerges from the usual desire for control for a moment, it generally falters for lack of an understanding that accountability matters too. Trusting the people only when they agree with you is no way to build a freer, more democratic society...