Democracy and One Nation

November 18, 2012 10:58 am

If Britain is to be transformed into a forward looking and dynamic country it must harness and utilise fully the energy and strength of the British people. It will not be enough to rely on the structures of the British state and imagine that the necessary transformation of Britain can be achieved exclusively, or indeed mainly, through central control and direction. While of course the promotion of effective policies by central government is vital, it will be nowhere enough to bring about the radical changes necessary. What is crucial is that there must be a profound cultural shift so that the empowerment of people through their localities, the regions and the nations of the United Kingdom is seen as being absolutely vital for positive change to come about.

In other words, Labour needs to acknowledge that the exercise of power and decision making has to be decentralised from Whitehall and Westminster. This will be a huge and difficult task because it will mean reversing centuries of centralisation, but it will be imperative if Labour is to be successful in reversing Britain’s economic decline. Running alongside, and to facilitate, that process of economic and social change must be the creation of a healthy, participative democracy. Rather than Labour saying to the people of this country “vote for us and we will deliver for you”, Labour needs to be prepared to say “vote for us and we will work with you to build the country we all want to see”.

As we begin to grapple with this agenda, it is important for us to ‘practice what we preach’. By which I mean that it would be wrong for Labour to develop our policies without reference to the views of the British people. We need to learn from past practice and recent ideas, but we need to avoid the risk that debate about where power is located and how it is exercised is a “top down” exercise. That is why I believe there is merit in exploring ways of bringing together constitutional experts and campaigning organisations, civil society and, crucially, ordinary people.

Devolving power must mean devolving the process for achieving this aim and at the same time giving a collective voice to the people themselves. Of course, it will be up to Labour, and indeed other political parties as well, to decide which policies and ideas we wish to take forward, but it would be a powerful statement of our belief in “democracy” if we begin a national conversation about how democracy itself can be enhanced and how One Nation could be forged on the basis of “power” being vested in the people themselves.

All too often, the centre left fail to recognise that until quite recently Britain was one of the most centralised states in the western world. The last Labour Government began the process of decentralisation by bringing devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Now, we need to build upon that process within the overall framework of the United Kingdom, so that the distinct particularities of the “devolved territories” are acknowledged. But crucially, decentralisation must not be seen as a process confined to the Celtic fringe; it must be central to Labour’s vision of transforming the whole of the United Kingdom, including England where 85% of the UK’s population live.

In essence, I believe that at whatever part of the United Kingdom we look at, the principle of bringing ‘power’ closer to the people makes sense; it is crucial to building a strong economy and it is vital if we are to create a vibrant democracy. Whether it is devolution in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland or decentralisation in England, the principle of ‘democracy’ has to be central to the creation of One Nation.

Wayne David is MP for Political and Constitutional Reform

This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList

  • Dave Postles

    One Nation seaside resort: are we nearly there yet, dad? We’re getting bored in the back seat.

  • Daniel Speight

    Decentralisation – let’s start with the Labour Party itself. No more Rotherham-like shortlists!

  • Alexwilliamz

    I think the UK could quite easily become a more federal state, there would be 3 tiers of gov, with both central gvt and unitary gvt giving up quite a bit of power to a federal body. England can probably be split into 10-11 coherent areas with some historic or strategic justification. Some would as a result have to be smaller than others, and inevitably there would be some bits which would not be a perfect fit, but it would definitely give some counterbalance to the Londoncentricism of the present set up. Whether Westminster could countenance such a transfer of power and money I would be surprised but I think it would enrich democracy as actual power would be at a scale people might more readily identify with.

  • Brumanuensis

    This article has a slight air of ‘underpants gnome de-centralisation’ – reference from here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5sxLapAts

    ‘De-centralisation’ is one of those things everyone claims to be a fan of. Everyone assumes, axiomatically, that it’s a good thing to de-centralise. But is it? I can understand why some functions of central government could be devolved, such as responsibility for transport planning, housing and other services that could benefit from greater local administration. But at the same time, a lot of de-centralisation tends to be justified by reference to vague rhetoric about ‘empowerment’ and ‘democracy’. At the same time, government policy actively acts against localisation in many areas, such as education, where academies and free schools answer to the Secretary of State for Education, not the local education authorities – who are usually stigmatised as being ‘backward’ and ‘bureaucratic’.

    We need to be careful that in our mania for de-centralisation, we don’t forget about the importance of equality. I’m fine with de-centralisation if it enables local councils to adapt to particular local challenges, but I don’t want local authorities to actively undermine the welfare of their most vulnerable constituents. There needs to be a central government backstop to make sure that localisation doesn’t turn into a form of postcode lottery, with national standards and uniformity sacrificed to the ‘de-centralisation’ genie.

    Equally, most arguments about de-centralisation, particularly in England, seem to centre on the need for new local institutions. Why? The fetish of some on the left and right for mayors clearly isn’t shared by local populations in most areas, with Bristol being the only successful mayoral referendum in May and Hartlepool now voting to scrap its mayoral office. Why not work through existing structures first and then adapt them when problems arise. And not just through more cult-of-personality policies, like mayors.

  • Brumanuensis

    This article has a slight air of ‘underpants gnome de-centralisation’ – reference from here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5sxLapAts

    ‘De-centralisation’ is one of those things everyone claims to be a fan of. Everyone assumes, axiomatically, that it’s a good thing to de-centralise. But is it? I can understand why some functions of central government could be devolved, such as responsibility for transport planning, housing and other services that could benefit from greater local administration. But at the same time, a lot of de-centralisation tends to be justified by reference to vague rhetoric about ‘empowerment’ and ‘democracy’. At the same time, government policy actively acts against localisation in many areas, such as education, where academies and free schools answer to the Secretary of State for Education, not the local education authorities – who are usually stigmatised as being ‘backward’ and ‘bureaucratic’.

    We need to be careful that in our mania for de-centralisation, we don’t forget about the importance of equality. I’m fine with de-centralisation if it enables local councils to adapt to particular local challenges, but I don’t want local authorities to actively undermine the welfare of their most vulnerable constituents. There needs to be a central government backstop to make sure that localisation doesn’t turn into a form of postcode lottery, with national standards and uniformity sacrificed to the ‘de-centralisation’ genie.

    Equally, most arguments about de-centralisation, particularly in England, seem to centre on the need for new local institutions. Why? The fetish of some on the left and right for mayors clearly isn’t shared by local populations in most areas, with Bristol being the only successful mayoral referendum in May and Hartlepool now voting to scrap its mayoral office. Why not work through existing structures first and then adapt them when problems arise. And not just through more cult-of-personality policies, like mayors.

  • Brumanuensis

    This article has a slight air of ‘underpants gnome de-centralisation’ – reference from here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5sxLapAts

    ‘De-centralisation’ is one of those things everyone claims to be a fan of. Everyone assumes, axiomatically, that it’s a good thing to de-centralise. But is it? I can understand why some functions of central government could be devolved, such as responsibility for transport planning, housing and other services that could benefit from greater local administration. But at the same time, a lot of de-centralisation tends to be justified by reference to vague rhetoric about ‘empowerment’ and ‘democracy’. At the same time, government policy actively acts against localisation in many areas, such as education, where academies and free schools answer to the Secretary of State for Education, not the local education authorities – who are usually stigmatised as being ‘backward’ and ‘bureaucratic’.

    We need to be careful that in our mania for de-centralisation, we don’t forget about the importance of equality. I’m fine with de-centralisation if it enables local councils to adapt to particular local challenges, but I don’t want local authorities to actively undermine the welfare of their most vulnerable constituents. There needs to be a central government backstop to make sure that localisation doesn’t turn into a form of postcode lottery, with national standards and uniformity sacrificed to the ‘de-centralisation’ genie.

    Equally, most arguments about de-centralisation, particularly in England, seem to centre on the need for new local institutions. Why? The fetish of some on the left and right for mayors clearly isn’t shared by local populations in most areas, with Bristol being the only successful mayoral referendum in May and Hartlepool now voting to scrap its mayoral office. Why not work through existing structures first and then adapt them when problems arise. And not just through more cult-of-personality policies, like mayors.

  • Brumanuensis

    This article has a slight air of ‘underpants gnome de-centralisation’ – reference from here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5sxLapAts

    ‘De-centralisation’ is one of those things everyone claims to be a fan of. Everyone assumes, axiomatically, that it’s a good thing to de-centralise. But is it? I can understand why some functions of central government could be devolved, such as responsibility for transport planning, housing and other services that could benefit from greater local administration. But at the same time, a lot of de-centralisation tends to be justified by reference to vague rhetoric about ‘empowerment’ and ‘democracy’. At the same time, government policy actively acts against localisation in many areas, such as education, where academies and free schools answer to the Secretary of State for Education, not the local education authorities – who are usually stigmatised as being ‘backward’ and ‘bureaucratic’.

    We need to be careful that in our mania for de-centralisation, we don’t forget about the importance of equality. I’m fine with de-centralisation if it enables local councils to adapt to particular local challenges, but I don’t want local authorities to actively undermine the welfare of their most vulnerable constituents. There needs to be a central government backstop to make sure that localisation doesn’t turn into a form of postcode lottery, with national standards and uniformity sacrificed to the ‘de-centralisation’ genie.

    Equally, most arguments about de-centralisation, particularly in England, seem to centre on the need for new local institutions. Why? The fetish of some on the left and right for mayors clearly isn’t shared by local populations in most areas, with Bristol being the only successful mayoral referendum in May and Hartlepool now voting to scrap its mayoral office. Why not work through existing structures first and then adapt them when problems arise. And not just through more cult-of-personality policies, like mayors.

  • Brumanuensis

    This article has a slight air of ‘underpants gnome de-centralisation’ – reference from here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5sxLapAts

    ‘De-centralisation’ is one of those things everyone claims to be a fan of. Everyone assumes, axiomatically, that it’s a good thing to de-centralise. But is it? I can understand why some functions of central government could be devolved, such as responsibility for transport planning, housing and other services that could benefit from greater local administration. But at the same time, a lot of de-centralisation tends to be justified by reference to vague rhetoric about ‘empowerment’ and ‘democracy’. At the same time, government policy actively acts against localisation in many areas, such as education, where academies and free schools answer to the Secretary of State for Education, not the local education authorities – who are usually stigmatised as being ‘backward’ and ‘bureaucratic’.

    We need to be careful that in our mania for de-centralisation, we don’t forget about the importance of equality. I’m fine with de-centralisation if it enables local councils to adapt to particular local challenges, but I don’t want local authorities to actively undermine the welfare of their most vulnerable constituents. There needs to be a central government backstop to make sure that localisation doesn’t turn into a form of postcode lottery, with national standards and uniformity sacrificed to the ‘de-centralisation’ genie.

    Equally, most arguments about de-centralisation, particularly in England, seem to centre on the need for new local institutions. Why? The fetish of some on the left and right for mayors clearly isn’t shared by local populations in most areas, with Bristol being the only successful mayoral referendum in May and Hartlepool now voting to scrap its mayoral office. Why not work through existing structures first and then adapt them when problems arise. And not just through more cult-of-personality policies, like mayors.

  • Brumanuensis

    This article has a slight air of ‘underpants gnome de-centralisation’ – reference from here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5sxLapAts

    ‘De-centralisation’ is one of those things everyone claims to be a fan of. Everyone assumes, axiomatically, that it’s a good thing to de-centralise. But is it? I can understand why some functions of central government could be devolved, such as responsibility for transport planning, housing and other services that could benefit from greater local administration. But at the same time, a lot of de-centralisation tends to be justified by reference to vague rhetoric about ‘empowerment’ and ‘democracy’. At the same time, government policy actively acts against localisation in many areas, such as education, where academies and free schools answer to the Secretary of State for Education, not the local education authorities – who are usually stigmatised as being ‘backward’ and ‘bureaucratic’.

    We need to be careful that in our mania for de-centralisation, we don’t forget about the importance of equality. I’m fine with de-centralisation if it enables local councils to adapt to particular local challenges, but I don’t want local authorities to actively undermine the welfare of their most vulnerable constituents. There needs to be a central government backstop to make sure that localisation doesn’t turn into a form of postcode lottery, with national standards and uniformity sacrificed to the ‘de-centralisation’ genie.

    Equally, most arguments about de-centralisation, particularly in England, seem to centre on the need for new local institutions. Why? The fetish of some on the left and right for mayors clearly isn’t shared by local populations in most areas, with Bristol being the only successful mayoral referendum in May and Hartlepool now voting to scrap its mayoral office. Why not work through existing structures first and then adapt them when problems arise. And not just through more cult-of-personality policies, like mayors.

  • Brumanuensis

    This article has a slight air of ‘underpants gnome de-centralisation’ – reference from here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5sxLapAts

    ‘De-centralisation’ is one of those things everyone claims to be a fan of. Everyone assumes, axiomatically, that it’s a good thing to de-centralise. But is it? I can understand why some functions of central government could be devolved, such as responsibility for transport planning, housing and other services that could benefit from greater local administration. But at the same time, a lot of de-centralisation tends to be justified by reference to vague rhetoric about ‘empowerment’ and ‘democracy’. At the same time, government policy actively acts against localisation in many areas, such as education, where academies and free schools answer to the Secretary of State for Education, not the local education authorities – who are usually stigmatised as being ‘backward’ and ‘bureaucratic’.

    We need to be careful that in our mania for de-centralisation, we don’t forget about the importance of equality. I’m fine with de-centralisation if it enables local councils to adapt to particular local challenges, but I don’t want local authorities to actively undermine the welfare of their most vulnerable constituents. There needs to be a central government backstop to make sure that localisation doesn’t turn into a form of postcode lottery, with national standards and uniformity sacrificed to the ‘de-centralisation’ genie.

    Equally, most arguments about de-centralisation, particularly in England, seem to centre on the need for new local institutions. Why? The fetish of some on the left and right for mayors clearly isn’t shared by local populations in most areas, with Bristol being the only successful mayoral referendum in May and Hartlepool now voting to scrap its mayoral office. Why not work through existing structures first and then adapt them when problems arise. And not just through more cult-of-personality policies, like mayors.

  • Brumanuensis

    This article has a slight air of ‘underpants gnome de-centralisation’ – reference from here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tO5sxLapAts

    ‘De-centralisation’ is one of those things everyone claims to be a fan of. Everyone assumes, axiomatically, that it’s a good thing to de-centralise. But is it? I can understand why some functions of central government could be devolved, such as responsibility for transport planning, housing and other services that could benefit from greater local administration. But at the same time, a lot of de-centralisation tends to be justified by reference to vague rhetoric about ‘empowerment’ and ‘democracy’. At the same time, government policy actively acts against localisation in many areas, such as education, where academies and free schools answer to the Secretary of State for Education, not the local education authorities – who are usually stigmatised as being ‘backward’ and ‘bureaucratic’.

    We need to be careful that in our mania for de-centralisation, we don’t forget about the importance of equality. I’m fine with de-centralisation if it enables local councils to adapt to particular local challenges, but I don’t want local authorities to actively undermine the welfare of their most vulnerable constituents. There needs to be a central government backstop to make sure that localisation doesn’t turn into a form of postcode lottery, with national standards and uniformity sacrificed to the ‘de-centralisation’ genie.

    Equally, most arguments about de-centralisation, particularly in England, seem to centre on the need for new local institutions. Why? The fetish of some on the left and right for mayors clearly isn’t shared by local populations in most areas, with Bristol being the only successful mayoral referendum in May and Hartlepool now voting to scrap its mayoral office. Why not work through existing structures first and then adapt them when problems arise. And not just through more cult-of-personality policies, like mayors.

    • Alexwilliamz

      For me decentralisation should be about giving the role of making things work back to the local area level. I am all for central gvt providing some structure and clear boundaries, I’d also want to see some basic national audit bodies and inspectorates, to ensure standards are maintained across regions. As with many things it is the detail that will make things work, each function of the state needs to be assessed and where it makes most sense to regionalise power do it. I just think that for a number of things we need a different political unit between national to unitary/county council.

      • Brumanuensis

        It might be a good idea to make more use of parishes in some areas, Or, we could shrink the size of the local government unit. In Belgium and France, the basic unit is the ‘commune’. When I was living in Belgium, my local commune covered an area of about 33 square km and contained around 21,000 inhabitants. Other communes were much the same – Bruxelles is split into 19 borough-equivalents, with the smallest having an area of 1.1 square km and a population of about 21,000. In total there are 2,739 communes and they seem to do a good job from my recollection. You can go too far though: in France, there are 36,539 communes, many of which – particularly in Alsace-Lorraine – could do with amalgamation. But it is worth exploring whether the size of local government units in the UK is too big (I have no strong feelings either way).

  • JoeDM

    So local people to be given democratic controls over decisions that affect them.

    Wasn’t that ‘Localism’? And didn’t Labour object to it as ‘nimbyism’?

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