At the last election the Labour Party offered a range of devolution policies aimed at creating a more de-centralised UK. It said in the Labour Party manifesto:
‘We will embark on the biggest devolution of power to our English city and county regions in a hundred years with an English Devolution Act. Transferring £30 billion of funding, along with new powers over economic development, skills, employment, housing and business support’.
Sounds reasonable enough, right? Well, yes, as far as it goes. Noticeably for Scotland and Wales, it did go further:
‘We will keep our vow and implement the Smith Agreement in full, and will go further, with a Home Rule Bill to give extra powers to Scotland over tax, welfare and jobs.
We will devolve billions of pounds of social security spending, including benefits that support disabled people’.
‘We will put Welsh devolution on the same statutory basis as Scottish devolution, with a clear principle that powers are devolved unless specifically reserved, and that a Welsh legislature is a permanent feature of our constitutional arrangements’.
Together the measures outlined were a fairly ambitious agenda. Paradoxically however, the proposals still left a general feeling of a lack of radicalism. This sounds like two positions that are impossible to hold simultaneously. How can two such contradictory claims stand-up?
The circle can be squared. In short: the agenda was neither coherent nor ambitious enough! This lack of coherence and ambition is a result of a deeper problem. That problem has been there since the early days of the devolution agenda. If you accept the need in principle for de-centralisation of power (and there are arguments to be made against it) then you should embark on the journey based on a clear set of principles which should be applied consistently. The ad-hoc; some minor tax raising powers here, some responsibility for policing there approach, variously driven by the emergence of mini-crises of legitimacy or the political expediency of ‘winning a few more votes with this or that interest group or constituency’, is no way to organise the state. The approach of the current Conservative government to de-centralisation i.e. the convoluted mess of ‘powerhouses’, ‘deals’ and ‘English votes, for English laws’ ticks all these boxes: lack of clear principles, driven by short-term political advantage etc.
The reason that the Miliband led Labour Party’s devolution agenda (despite on the face of it involving some significant shifts in authority and resources to lower tiers of government) left people feeling apathetic is similar. The proposals did not seem to emerge from a set of political principles which led logically to a clear vision of what a reorganised British state should look like. To make matters worse, there seemed little evidence of any accompanying rigorous analysis of why what the Labour Party proposed was the right kind of de-centralisation, why some measures were being proposed but not others and where de-centralisation might end. In other words: it looked incoherent, it seemed to lack ambition and came across as being tailored for political advantage.
What is needed is a re-think by the left about political power in general. In doing so, the left needs to ask a number of fundamental questions: who holds it, on whose behalf is it exercised, in what way is it best deployed and how can it be best made accountable. The Labour Party came into existence in order to ask all these questions of the power structures of the late 19th century. At its best the Labour Party has challenged the concentration of political (and economic) power and its exercise by unaccountable people and organisations. That original mission needs to be re-energised. The left needs to throw off the pessimism that has overshadowed it’s politics since at least the 2010 election defeat, but which has frankly lingered over left-thinking for at least two decades if not longer. A new spirit of optimism is required. That optimism needs to be supported by a lot of serious thinking in order for it to be sustainable.
On the issue of the holding and exercise of political power that serious thinking needs to involve an open-mind about a much more decentralised (yes, possibly even federal) UK. Not just ad-hoc, asymmetric devolution that becomes an open-ended process where the contours of the devolved institutions are tweaked and extended from time-to-time. Rather, a debate is needed about a comprehensive vision, informed by a coherent set of principles, and a clear end-game that offers a lasting settlement for the organisation of the state for decades to come. And yes, this means grasping the English question. Something many people in the Labour Party seems scared of. Heaven knows why?! The right reforms of the state offer few reasons to be concerned. On the contrary, the gains could be significant.
DLN offers a space for radical thinking about re-vitalising democracy in the UK, re-connecting the citizens with Government and perhaps more importantly, Government with the citizens. Federalism is one option – and there are many versions of federalism to examine - but there are non-federal alternatives too. Let the debate begin!