In an era of widespread disillusionment with politicians and the political process, where the simple answers of populists or the do-nothing respite of apathy have an easy attraction for many people, the Scottish referendum proved that elections can still inspire voters to rigorous engagement and a turnout of 85 per cent. Devolution – how much and on what terms – was at the core of this national discussion: not as an abstract constitutional reform but as something that would profoundly change people’s everyday lives for the better.
As we approach the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, attention should turn to a new constitutional settlement. With the Labour party commitment to House of Lords reform made we must ensure that we deal with some other loose ends; namely the centralised stranglehold on power.
Mistrust of politicians grows where there is a gap between what they promise and what they deliver. Where the challenge for Scotland is now to stop a frenzy of mass engagement turning into one of mass disillusionment, the challenge everywhere is to reform our political system to rebuild and sustain legitimacy with people. The conversation in England has turned to address questions about how we are governed as never before. Pushing power out of Westminster and down into communities is seen by many as a route to reform – we need to start our own national discussion about how devolution should work.
Parts of Labour’s policy review have played an important role beginning this. The Adonis Growth Review showed how devolving levers and funding to kick-start growth could rebalance our skewed economy. The Innovation Taskforce demonstrated how public services need to be reformed to work more effectively and efficiently around people and places not Whitehall-defined silos. Labour has outlined a vision of a ‘new English deal’ which resets the centre-local-community relationship devolving power to improve outcomes and increasing accountability to local people to drive this through.
Devolution needs to be understood not as a political strategy when in opposition, an isolated policy initiative from government or a financial tactic if the economy stagnates – all of which have marked the limits of the Conservative party’s understanding of it. The potential of devolution is as deep as it is urgent: it offers a more effective way of governing in the twenty first century when old hierarchies have broken down and traditional institutions too often fail to respond to modern complex challenges. There are limited levers ministers sitting behind desks in Whitehall can pull to achieve outcomes – the world is far messier and interdependent than the simplicity of departmental silos allows for.
To achieve social change in this context we need to radically reform our state. In Oldham as a Co-operative Council we understand that the challenges our communities face can’t be met by the council alone – the whole community needs to take ownership and work together. So we have found new ways to engage and involve people: opening up our full council meetings to online interaction, equipping our councillors with local leadership skills and prioritising things that make a real difference to people like taking on high interest retailers by providing affordable alternatives. But what is required is more fundamental than just reconnecting. Reform of public services which work for people and not against them is not only the right thing to do, but essential if we are to maintain our commitment to public expenditure limits without dismantling the very community infrastructure we all rely on. Other areas have different approaches borne out of their particular circumstances and opportunities – such as employment in Islington or fairness in Plymouth.
Power should be dispersed to communities to enable more creative approaches to complex challenges: when it is hoarded at the centre its weight is heavily focussed on the narrow imposition of one-size-fits-all prescriptions that stifle local initiative. A state which moves from a rigid hierarchy of ‘tiers’ of responsibility towards a more enabling matrix of ‘spheres’ of influence would be more agile, adaptive and responsive. Central government should still set a strategic framework and priorities, but its role should be reformed to work with local government as an equal and respected partner. The centre should focus as a sharper spine that learns, shares and embeds the lessons of local innovations throughout the system.
Devolution should enhance not bypass local democracy. Low local election turnouts are often used by advocates of the centralised status quo as proof of the innate weakness of local government itself rather than as a direct consequence of an over-bloated centre. If power is devolved to newly created bureaucracies or quangos that sit alongside local government this could increase disillusionment with ‘the system’ where too many layers of complexity and lines of responsibility blur the clarity, transparency and accountability of decision-making processes. Devolution must work through local government to ensure democratic legitimacy, and decisions need to be held strongly and clearly accountable by local people who need to be able to engage with the process and ultimately voice their opinions through the ballot box.
While Labour has committed to devolution in principle, in practice there is a danger that once in Whitehall, civil servants will find it hard to let go. Powers devolved may be circumscribed with new rules or ring-fences – which may stand individually on their own merits but together amount to a prescriptive regime that ties the hands of locally elected representatives to respond to and work with their communities.
Ultimately, we need to reform our governance so that power is embedded in communities and with people who have more control over their own lives. Rather than hoarding power at the centre we need to devolve it so that the conditions for active communities and good local leadership are created. Only then can a more healthy local democracy emerge in which competing parties offer real visions for change, with the power to fulfil their promise. Then the gap between rhetoric and action can be closed, mending our broken politics.
Cllr Jim McMahon is leader of the LGA Labour Group and leader of Oldham Council. He tweets at @CllrJimMcMahon