8 December 2022
By John Watson
Well, at long last they have done some thinking. The Labour Party’s Commission on the UK’s future, chaired by Gordon Brown, has published its report: “Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy”. Perhaps the most newsworthy proposal is the replacement of the House of Lords by a form of regional assembly, but that is only one string to a greater theme. The real point is much broader, that government is failing in the UK because it’s far too centralised and that it needs to be returned to the people by a major power shift from Westminster to the provinces beyond.
There is plenty of evidence that people are unhappy with the performance of government and are losing confidence in its relationship with the governed. Westminster is seen as a place apart and politicians as more interested in power than in those they serve (indeed, how could it be otherwise after Liz Truss’s truly dreadful comment that at least she had been Prime Minister?). Labour’s answer to this? Far more devolution of power to those outside London, bringing policy much closer to the people it affects and improving decision-making. Results: better-targeted political measures, greater prosperity and an electorate which is happier that its interest are being taken into account. Well, maybe.
The theory that political decisions should be made at the lowest possible level sounds attractive but introducing a system which both respects it and works as a practical matter is not entirely straightforward. There is a risk that you delegate things too far then find the central authority cannot pull matters back to the centre when they derail. Take the American case of Roe v. Wade as an example. The original decision placed federal restrictions on the ability of individual states to shorten the period during which an abortion was permitted. That limited the power of the states which was then restored to them by the Supreme Court, to the tune of much howling from the “Choice” lobby. No, they were saying in effect, this is too important a matter to be left to the states and has to be dealt with centrally. Okay, then, delegation is a good thing unless it is really important.
At the other end of the scale you have Low Traffic Neighbourhoods in Islington. There the Council has engaged in lengthy consultation, giving rise to highly acrimonious discussions between those who want access for their cars and those who are more concerned with the rights of pedestrians. The discussion is polluted with nimbyism and self-interest. You would probably get a better solution if the Council simply followed its experts and didn’t consult at all. No, no, that would never do. Then the public would feel ignored by centralised power. Are Low Traffic Neighbourhoods among the areas which are too important to delegate?
Let us try again. Suppose that an area with a particularly high level of Muslim immigrants decides to rename its roads after prominent sons of the Prophet. Should it be able to do so? What about those cities where the council is dominated by building firms? How far should they be able to control the planning process?
All this isn’t to knock the idea of passing powers from Westminster to local authorities and mayoraltys but to make the point that it is not an easy process and very careful consideration will have to be given to checks and balances. It is easy enough to persuade people that they would like to see more power exercised locally but it may be more difficult to persuade them that power has been exercised fairly once this has been done. Central government may be incompetent but in general it is fairly impartial. With local power you get more perception but more politics of interest.
Still, there is one general point which runs through this document. Britain’s performance in recent years has fallen behind that of similar countries and the public has lost faith in our system of government. That means that the existing system has failed, so it must be time to try something new. For that reason the Commission’s document is an important one and a new Labour government should certainly take steps to put it into effect. In doing so, however, they will have to give careful thought into how and when those bodies to whom powers are delegated can be restrained in cases of abuse.