We need local scrutiny of public bodies in cases such as the Rotherham child exploitation scandal. Photo: Getty
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How can we reinvigorate local papers to ensure scrutiny of failing public agencies?

In light of the failing public agencies in cases such as Rotherham and Mid-Staffordshire hospital, we need a plan to enhance proper local scrutiny.

It’s perhaps no surprise that the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham was revealed by a national investigative journalist, the Times’ excellent Andrew Norfolk. The chances of all but the most dedicated local reporter finding the time to wade through reams of documents to unearth municipal malfeasance, amid the demands to churn out copy, are remote. That’s assuming they have the interest and expertise to do so in the first place.

Yet for our democracy to function properly, we need to be able to hold decision-makers to account. And to do that, we need proper scrutiny of what they do in our names. It is clear that the conventional arrangement, where strong local newspapers fulfil this function, is on its last legs.

The past decade has seen the precipitous decline of local and regional media titles and the hollowing-out of careers on local newspapers. And hard commercial imperatives for struggling media groups means they are never going to devote the labour-intensive resources necessary to hold local public agencies to account in the future.

So how can we support a local independent media, preserve public interest journalism and repair the market in local political scrutiny? The answer is to make public bodies pay for the privilege of being held to account. A local scrutiny tax, levied on councils, various arms of the NHS, universities, FE colleges, schools, the police, transport bodies, and perhaps even utility companies, would generate a pot of money to finance public interest journalism in each town and city. The amount paid could simply reflect the size of the organisation.

A new accreditation for public interest journalists would ensure quality control and those working for commercial players, would see their workloads ring-fenced. "PIJs" could bid for money from the local pot, depending on their expertise, the reach of their writing and the amount of time they will guarantee to set aside to report on and investigate public bodies.

This would mean the decisions they take receive proper scrutiny from independent journalists, increasing the likelihood that incompetence, waste and anything darker, will receive proper journalistic inquiry. But the upside for them is that there would be more media coverage of their work, allowing them to showcase their successes, improve engagement and build trust with their local communities.

The BBC shows that we can, and do, subsidise public interest journalism, so this is no great departure in terms of changing the relationship between the scrutineers and the scrutinised. (Indeed, many local newspapers are reliant on the income from the statutory notices that local authorities are obliged to publish). But a local scrutiny tax could also help make dedicated local bloggers commercially viable too.

The point about the scandals in Rotherham, or at Mid-Staffordshire Hospital, is that bodies that serve the public sometimes make a bad job of it. Without a vibrant independent local media bringing these matters to light, how will we know?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Labour finds it easier to ignore the working class than to persuade them

The metropolitan left needs to start acting as if it is even partly as much concerned about Rochdale as it is about Aleppo.

There’s surely a deliciously bitter irony in the fact that Michael Gove’s favourite work of history is George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic The Strange Death of Liberal England. Beloved of the common reader, mistrusted by those haughty “experts” we’ve had enough of, Dangerfield tells of a British liberal consensus eroded over decades but eventually wiped out by the carnage of the First World War. For the Great War, read the cataclysm of last June’s Brexit vote, relished by Gove and the like, and you have lessons regarding the strange, ongoing death of Neoliberal England.

The year after Dangerfield’s volume appeared, 200 men marched from Jarrow to London to implore the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin to bring jobs to their beleaguered town. The smooth and emollient Baldwin wouldn’t see them, which suggests that the notion of an aloof metropolitan elite turning its back on a rusting, post-industrial north is no modern invention.

Dangerfield never offers a cogent analysis of why the normally placid British began to throw themselves under police horses, go on hunger marches, join militant unions and generally abandon their consensual deference in favour of harsher doctrines. He found it as bewildering and mysterious as the tides. The death of what we might call Neoliberal England is much more explicable, if unpalatable to some. Liberal commentators have been rudely awakened to the fact that benign progressivists from Professor Pangloss to Francis Fukuyama onwards were wrong. Assuming that, left alone, “the masses” will come around to your way of thinking is rather like those churchmen who thought babies raised in silence would automatically speak English. It is presumptuous and leads to disaster.

I found myself thinking often of lines from Yeats’s “The Second Coming”. Rough beasts slouched through the streets of Batley. Corbyn, Cameron and the other indentured members of the Westminster political class lacked all conviction. Cameron utterly miscalculated the country’s mood and hugely overestimated its opinion of his own appeal and competence. Corbyn lurked silent and wraithlike on the edges of the national debate, a study in uselessness. By contrast, as Yeats put it, the worst (Farage, Johnson, the foaming and splenetic demagogues of the Mail and the Spectator) were full of a passionate intensity. They were full of something else, too, lying through their grins about extra money for the NHS. But by then the damage had been done.

Because immigration had a crude and ugly sound, it was left to only the crude and ugly of politics to mention it. This was a mistake. As Adam Shatz put it in the London Review of Books, few mainstream politicians wanted to engage with “the fabled white working class . . . which most of us have found it easier to hate than persuade”. Yet persuasion is important, however little the present leadership of the Labour Party seems to care for this element of politics. One gets the distinct impression that Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes would prefer the purity and posturing of permanent opposition rather than the messy, compromised business of government. They offer ineffectuality and disdainful superiority dressed up as a kind of saintly decency. Maybe Jeremy feels that by not doing anything, he cannot do anything wrong. He should be disabused of this notion, and quickly.

Second, and this would seem so obvious as to not need saying, Labour needs to reconnect with its former industrial heartland. This doesn’t necessarily mean “turning to the right” or “abandoning left-wing principles”, or even embracing the dreaded “Blairism’’. But it does mean addressing (even with nose pinched between fingers) the legitimate concerns in the north and the Midlands about immigration, jobs and welfare. The metropolitan left needs to start acting as if it is even partly as much concerned about Rochdale as it is about Aleppo.

People disagreeing with you might be irritating – even galling – but it is not undemocratic. Democracy and liberalism are not synonymous. You can have one without the other. We struggled through most of the 1980s nominally democratic but unarguably illiberal. What Labour needs now is, perhaps, fewer ideologues and a few more psephologists, someone who might conceivably tell the party how voting works and how elections are won. If so, some of my former A-level sociology and politics students in Skelmersdale are probably still available for work.

Stuart Maconie is a writer and broadcaster

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition