Devolution offers a real opportunity to reconnect with the ‘left behind’ who are alienated from our democratic institutions. But approaches so far have fallen short, as Jessica Studdert explains
We have had a lot of democracy this year. The results of national polls on both sides of the Atlantic have confounded experts and rocked political establishments. The Brexit vote, and Donald Trump’s “Brexit plus plus plus”, revealed deep fault lines between those who broadly accept the governance status quo, and those who reject it: with the latter winning out.
The background context in the year running up to the EU referendum – although people could be forgiven for not noticing that it was happening – was a significant devolution drive within England. Yet while alienation from the distant ‘elites’ in governing institutions at Westminster and Brussels is a widely perceived problem, devolution of decision-making power to local government is far from being the solution with popular appeal. The ‘take back control’ message we heard during the referendum campaign chimed with many people, as mainstream national public discourse jarred with their perceived lived and local reality. This disconnect has been played out clearly in the corrosive debate on immigration, where national statistics or macroeconomic arguments don’t seem to hold weight when the community impact of immigration is highly localised.
So, rather than being a technocratic policy objective which runs parallel to but separate from people’s real-life concerns, how can devolution become a route to re-engaging those alienated from national democratic institutions? Can local governance, closer to people and anchored in places, fill the vacuum for those who feel they have been left behind?
Two related forces are creating pressure on the health of our democracy: the demise of the expert and the rise of populism. Representative democracy relies on the legitimacy of individuals and institutions who form part of the decision-making process. The declining influence of experts on democratic opinion is symbolic of weakening trust in traditional institutions to take decisions in the best interests of people. There was widespread consternation amongst remain supporters that the Sunderland electorate had voted leave. Why would they vote against their perceived rational self-interest as the home of the Nissan plant which risked relocation under Brexit? And why would the people of Cornwall, beneficiaries of so much European funding, turn their backs on that investment? The answer has to be that people are not simply two dimensional socio-economic units who act according to an evidencebased framework. Instead, the role of values and identity are just as important motivational factors, and we need to understand rather than downplay their significance.
The rise of populism as a force in our political system demonstrates the importance of these more emotive tribal factors which trump ‘rationalism’. Populism challenges the basis upon which representative democracy, with the primacy of collective decision-making, is conducted. Populist narratives fuse socio-economic grievance with external cultural threats to explain changes which create insecurity, counter-posing ‘out-of-touch elites’ against the interests of ‘the people’. They provide simplistic solutions and scapegoats where there are complexities. By seeking to change the terms of public policy debate, populists reinforce fragmentation and make it harder for representative democratic governance to function effectively in a pluralistic society.
These two forces – the decline of the expert and the rise of populism – combined with dramatic consequence in the EU referendum. The resonance of the ‘take back control’ slogan reflected the alienation of many from remote decision-making processes. In the context of globalisation, it is not the term ‘inequality’ (a socio-economic phenomenon) which chimed, but ‘immigration’ (with the implicit cultural threat it represents). And it’s the latter which has become a byword for the shifts that are leaving people behind. The ramifications of the vote present challenges for all of the institutions that underpin our representative democracy. Parliament, political parties and the High Court have all felt shockwaves. Local government is not immune, yet there is a specific challenge for this institution of governance. Despite the significant discontent across the country with the ‘out of touch’ Westminster establishment, this angry sentiment has not translated from simple opposition into a popular positive movement for decision-making power to be repatriated locally.
On one level, this is because populists offer simplistic narratives and scapegoats rather than constructive institutional responses. But for those who would see the potential of a more devolved form of governance to be more legitimate in principle, overcoming this disconnect in practice is important. The Brexit vote laid bare the geographic fault lines within our country, between urban and rural, north and south, former industrial areas and metropolitan centres. How can our institutions of governance be more responsive to this localised variation? How can local government become part of the answer?
The government’s devolution policy has been pursued within this increasingly fraught democratic context, the government’s devolution model has adopted a deal model: new powers in return for councils forming combined authorities and agreeing to a directly elected mayor. There is evidence that the public are broadly open to devolving power in theory, but are less certain about the particular approach adopted.
Polling for the New Local Government Network and PwC undertaken by Ipsos Mori at the height of the deal process last year found that a net positive of 32 per cent of people supported the principle of devolving decision-making powers over things like economic development, housing and transport. Nearly two-thirds said that local politicians know better than national politicians what is best for their local area.
But at the same time, there was little recognition of the devolution process that was happening around them. Only 20 per cent of people living in the 38 areas that submitted devolution bids knew “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about the proposals which were supposed to be of direct benefit to their area. Three-quarters of people knew “just a little” or “nothing”.
These findings suggest that people understand the potential of devolution to create more relevant decision-making, but the way it has been approached to date has fallen short. For devolution to offer a genuine opportunity to engage people who feel left behind and to create local institutions of governance capable of meeting the challenges of our times, we need to be clearer about the end goals.
So how do we move forward? Firstly, devolution to date has been driven by process not principle. This needs to be reversed if people are genuinely to engage with it. A model based on fast-tracked negotiated deals behind closed doors lacks transparency and has created little space for local dialogue with people about what devolved powers would mean for their lives. The government has retained tight control of what is on the table and the public have been almost completely shut out of the process. Short formal consultations were a mandated part of the process but they received few responses and the democracy bit has been bolted on afterwards through the mayoral elections.
Secondly, as a consequence, the opportunity for devolution to create a new relationship between the citizen and the state has been missed. Beyond a vote every four years, new more empowered local governance could encourage a deeper ongoing democratic discussion that is more relevant for our networked age. But there is a risk that devolution as currently planned will simply recreate the same centralised structures writ small, still operating at a remove from people.
Local institutions are part of and reflective of the local culture and identity of their communities. There should be greater scope for local government to pursue more innovative ways of involving people more actively and systematically in decisions which affect their lives. A series of democratic mechanisms could be put in place to engage people in discussions about the future of their place. For example, citizens’ juries could be used to bring people together to deliberate over complex issues and inform future priorities in their area. Digital technology could be used more imaginatively to crowd source ideas or responses to challenges. New mayoral combined authorities could employ new data analytics, generating deeper insight into people’s lives to inform more responsive techniques to capture their engagement. Local partners could lend more credibility to the case for future devolution if they could point to popular input into and support for proposals.
Finally, there is a real opportunity for devolution to move beyond simply being a technocratic socio-economic solution to the challenge of growth and public service reform, important though that is to effective and impactful decision-making. It should evolve towards being understood and pursued as new statecraft that enables the expression of local identity and culture to a greater extent. A much more decentralised political culture and practice would allow for a richer local democratic dialogue, which may have more impact than a national democratic discussion distant from people’s everyday lives. Local governance institutions are better placed to foster the solidarities that must be deepened to overcome the fragmentation that exists in our society.
This envisages an enhanced role for local councillors, as democratically elected representatives who will increasingly play the role of broker and facilitator to enable positive participation and ongoing dialogue. More empowered local institutions, with greater decision-making responsibility over the allocation of public resources, would mean people need to be engaged on a more substantive level in these decisions. This would also counter the sense that communities are simply buffeted by outside forces – a situation in which negative narratives about immigration can all too easily take hold.
Devolution is more than a policy solution. By creating new local spaces through which to engage people in dialogue about their shared future, it offers a potential route through the declining trust in traditional representative democracy on the one hand, and the risks of populism on the other. To meet the challenge of disaffection after the Brexit vote, devolution should be recognised as an opportunity to close the gap between government and the governed. Localised governance that is responsive, inclusive and promotes healthy democratic engagement and dialogue across a shared place stands the strongest chance of meeting the challenges of our times.
Image: chia ying Yang