Former Labour ministers are enjoying a last gasp of media exposure. It must be August. Paul Myners berated the Labour Party leadership contest as a failure in yesterday's Guardian here, and reportedly urged them to break the rules governing the hustings. Alan Milburn is off to advise the Tories, joining David Blunkett and Frank Field. (Yes, Frank was a minister over 10 years ago.) And amid the ConDem slash and burn proposals, Local Government secretary Eric Pickles takes out the Audit Commission, prompting wailing from his Labour shadow, John Denham and praise from fellow National Executive Committee (NEC) candidate, Ken Livingstone, better known as a Labour London Mayoral wannabee. In the meantime leading self-proclaimed leftie blogger, Sunny Hundal has joined the Labour Party.
Each of these episodes tells a tale about the role of trust in our politics. I want to concentrate on the Audit Commission. I had occasion to approach the Audit Commission (AC) informally about a fundamental breakdown in the established procedures governing local government finance some ten years ago. It was in the wake of catastrophic budgetary failure in the London Borough of Hackney. Researching the AC's functions I learned two important things: 1) it was set up by the Conservatives in 1982 while Michael Heseltine was the minister reponsible as Secretary of State for the Environment, and 2) that 'client' for the audit was not the local electorate, through its council and elected members; but Parliament, through the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons and the Secretary of State. In other words, for nearly 30 years, we have had institutionalised mis-trust in the management of local government finance.
Mistrust? Why so. Well in virtually every other form of collective activity, I can think of trust is institutionalised 'locally'. An unincorporated voluntary organisation's members appoint an auditor at their Annual General Meeting to report to them on the previous year's annual accounts and, looking to the future, advise on going concern. They are routinely enabled to pose questions at next year's AGM. Ditto, members of incorporated bodies, whether charitable or commercial.
On my journey (to coin a phrase in prominent use, currently) I have discovered while the Labour Party at branch and constituency level functions like that, well at least in theory. It is a different story nationally. Mistrust is institutionalised to the extent that as an elected member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee I am not allowed to question the Auditor directly, nor am I entitled to receive regular management accounts.
Our leadership candidates would do well to reflect on this before pontificating about the war or the deficit, or rebuilding trust with the electorate, or even members.