The Case for Democratic Devolution

BARRY WINTER argues that regional devolution could play an important part in re-democratising and re-balancing society.

In making the case for a democratic devolution, I will argue:

  • that we live in a politically and economically unbalanced society where wealth and power is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands
  • that the coalition government is making matters worse
  • that democratic devolution provides a valuable way of counteracting these developments, both in the short and longer term; and that devolution involves much more than decentralisation
  • that ‘radical regionalism’ offers a means of countering the lack of democracy in society and the widespread political disillusionment that is generating
  • that radical regionalism means doing politics very differently; that it disperses power and encourages active citizenship
  • that the Labour Party has made some positive moves on these issues but can be encouraged it to go much further.

In recent decades our society has become seriously and, indeed, dangerously unbalanced in a series of crucial, yet interlinked, ways.

English regionsUnbalanced Britain is being subjected to growing poverty and widening social inequalities generally; to increasing and irresponsible financial and corporate power, with the rich growing ever richer; and, in England (London aside), to a degree of political centralisation unequalled in much of western Europe.

As a result, we are also experiencing very striking regional inequalities, particularly between the north and the south east, as more and more people are becoming aware. Indeed, even the coalition is semi-conscious of this.

The vice chair of the centre-left Policy Network, Patrick Diamond, puts it this way: “A further structural imbalance bedevilling the UK is the regional disparity between north and south. London and the south-east are continuing to power ahead.” He adds that this is where “job growth is overwhelmingly concentrated”.

Arguing that the north is dependent “on a Whitehall machine that seldom understands their economic needs”, Diamond warns: “If present trends continue, the rest of the UK will fall even further behind over the next two decades.”

The coalition

Meanwhile, the government is making matters much worse. Among its first victims were the regional development agencies. Austerity is being used to justify the hollowing out of local government finances and powers. Northern councils are among those hardest hit by cuts. This is harming the north in particular because it is much more dependent on the public sector for jobs.

Apart from London, devolution itself has left England politically far behind the rest of the UK. We now have a serious democratic deficit. The Scottish referendum has thrown all these issues into much greater relief. For example, while Yorkshire and Scotland have similar populations the difference in the powers they have to shape their destinies is very marked.

The crucial question, then, is what can be done to remedy matters? How can we begin to rebalance Britain politically?

Here the lovely George Osborne is offering powers to certain English city regions. The deal is that they have to toe the line on elected mayors – and this is sowing tensions among some Labour councils. I can understand why some are taking the bait, but the deal seems to be more about decentralising powers to council leaders.

Where’s the democracy in all this? The chancellor continues to hold on to the purse strings.

Doing politics differently

Meanwhile our unbalanced society is becoming increasingly ‘de-democratised’, if you will excuse the term. Political disempowerment contributes to the deepening disillusionment with mainstream electoral politics and politicians. While this mood has been growing over the decades, it is now reaching very serious levels. Whether you look at polling in local or national elections, or declining party memberships, the story is one of sharp decline. Cynicism among young people in particular (and upon whom Labour’s electoral fate depends) is understandably widespread.

So, you might reasonably ask, what’s the point of discussing regional devolution at a time like this? People out there are not exactly clamouring for it. And, a decade ago, when voters in the north east were given the chance to express their views, they gave it the thumbs-down, in no uncertain terms. This outcome, perhaps, still weighs heavily in the minds of the Labour leadership, something which I will consider later.

I am certainly not suggesting that devolution is any kind of magic formula that can wipe all our troubles away. However, I do want to argue that it has the potential to play an important role in reclaiming democracy, in re-democratising and thereby re-balancing society. Given the opportunity, people could start to regrow their economies, locally and regionally. Indeed, regional and local developments should be complementary, politically supporting each other.

However, for me, this means that regional governance must be about doing politics differently, and should also encourage other levels of government to do the same. It’s what the Hannah Mitchell Foundation means when it calls for radical regionalism. It’s about sharing power and creatively encouraging active citizenship.

It means welcoming the involvement of different communities and people employed in the private and public sector, including the trade unions. It should encourage youth forums, disability groups, tenants groups, and the unemployed, among others, to have their say. ‘Partnerships not paternalism’, might the way to sum it up.

Of course, many other groups are recognising the need for doing politics differently, including some of the more imaginative Labour authorities. According to the Policy Network, people have not turned against democracy, but they don’t feel “properly represented”. It argues: “We need to find new ways of enabling individuals to engage outside the existing model, which allows people and communities to shape and take control of their own lives.”

While it is not advocating regional devolution as such, it is arguing  that “we must radically imagine democracy for modern times”.

Democratic culture

Here, I am reminded of the ideas of Richard Tawney who, in the inter-war years, argued that power in society had to be dispersed and that democracy without a democratic culture is a contradiction.

In 1931 he wrote: “Democracy is unstable as a political system as long as it remains a political system and nothing more, instead of being, as it should be, not only a form of government but a type of society, and a manner of life which is in harmony with that type.”

He continued: “To make it a type of society requires an advance along two lines. It involves, in the first place, the resolute elimination of all forms of special privilege which favour some groups and depress other, whether their source be differences of environment, of education, or of pecuniary income.

“It involves, in the second place, the conversion of economic power, now often an irresponsible tyrant, into a servant of society, working within clearly defined limits and accountable for its actions to a public authority.”

Eighty years later, these words have not lost any their force, not least when considering the modern tyrants and ‘lords of finance’ who today hold economic power.

Tawney’s remarks stand in stark contrast to what a leading Labour Party MP said at the time: “The gentleman in Whitehall knows best.” For too many years, this top-down attitude has prevailed within the Labour Party. And it’s time to put it well and truly to rest.

Labour and devolution

So where does the Labour Party leadership stand on devolution and democracy? One clear positive is that Ed Miliband has promised to set up regional banks to encourage economic development, if Labour is elected. Secondly, he promises to set up a people’s Constitutional Convention to debate how society should be run in the future. Again, this is to be welcomed and it might work alongside the plans being mooted in Parliament for a new, written Magna Carta.

A flavour of the thinking taking place can be found in a recent statement by Hilary Benn, the shadow secretary for communities and local government. Forgive me for quoting it in some detail.

Benn writes: “The burning issue in British politics today is how power is exercised and where: in Europe, Westminster, the nations of the UK, and in our cities, towns and villages.

“In an era of unprecedented human interdependence, we need international co-operation, to deal with global problems such as climate change, conflict and trade. There is also a growing thirst for more decisions to be made closer to where people live and work…

“Politics has changed… Society is being transformed by huge forces such as globalisation, a technological revolution…, and an information revolution in which the sharing of knowledge and ideas … can now be done at lightning speed.

“We have moved from an age when institutions used to command trust and deference to one of uncertainty about the future, not least because of the impact of the global economic crash.

“And UK governance has changed fundamentally with devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the restoration of self-government for London.

“The one part of the nation this revolution passed by, however, was England, but now that has begun to change.

“Not everything can be run from the centre and people want more say in what happens in their own communities. Local authorities are beginning to collaborate to do just that, and in the process are redrawing the boundaries of local government.

“In Manchester, West Yorkshire, Liverpool, Birmingham and the Black Country, South Yorkshire and the north east they are working together to grow their economies, improve skills, invest in better infrastructure and provide the houses we need.

“Labour is now making a devolution offer to all parts of England: to counties and districts as well as towns and cities. We will give every area, in return for working together, power over transport investment, skills, infrastructure and housing, and the chance to work with government on finding jobs for the long-term unemployed. We will give authorities longer-term budgets…

“If we want to build a stronger economy, then we need to ensure we have the skills that employers are looking for. And who knows best what is needed than local people and their public representatives?

“The same is true for decisions about what the priorities are for transport. By devolving these powers and budgets we can build a more prosperous economy.

“The new era of more local decision-making is exciting but challenging. It will require us all to play our part. And as power passes back, so will responsibility for how power and money is used.”

Benn concludes: “For too long the conversation has been one-way, with local communities asking national government: ‘What will you do for me?’ In future, communities should be asking: ‘What can we now do for ourselves?’ In life we get out what we put in; the people of England are ready for the task.”

While I would question Benn’s concluding remarks, there is much to welcome in this declaration. It is certainly a positive response to our changing political times and it clearly acknowledges that politics itself has to change, that the wider society needs to be more regularly engaged in what happens than it ever has in the past.

There is, however, one glaring omission, one aspect that does not get so much as a mention: regional devolution.

On other occasions, he has firmly rejected the idea of giving power to the regions, arguing that there is “no public appetite” for it. One might have said that about Scotland and, particularly, Wales at one time too.

So, while this complete silence disappoints me, it comes as no great surprise. It shows how much more work needs to be done within, around and outside the Labour Party to raise the issue. Only if the proposals gain momentum will party    leaders feel obliged to respond more positively. That’s the crucial role for political movements and pressure groups.

We may need to strengthen the argument for regional democracy with specific examples. Thus transport is not just for a city or cities but a regional matter. For example, Liverpool’s Labour Mayor recently complained that his city is not part of the proposed northern high-speed rail development, HS3. He notes that while the new line will run between Leeds and Manchester (which gets very crowded), one million more people a year travel between Liverpool and Manchester.

The economy is another issue that would be helped by having regional dimension – as it has done in Germany. Since the Second World War, the Lander, as they are called, continue to play a vital role in that country’s economic development. Labour’s proposal to set up regional banks perhaps recognises this. But it neglects any consideration of having a democratic regional dimension to accompany this banking.

Constitutional Convention

Which brings the argument finally to Labour’s proposal to convene a Constitutional Convention if it forms a government.

I would argue that even if it does not win the election, Labour should still help establish a people’s convention. In fact, Unlock Democracy and the Hannah Mitchell Foundation are already taking steps in this direction. Hopefully, it will attract all those interested in reclaiming democracy and rebalancing our society. Indeed, it might be something that members the Co-operative Party could play an invaluable role in helping to develop.

We need a political system that affords some protection from the changing whims of national governments to create and destroy existing political institutions at will, whether in terms of local or other levels of government. Margaret Thatcher shut down the GLC and the metropolitan counties because they challenged her authority. That kind of semi-monarchical power is not only unacceptable but fails to help politics make a real difference over the longer term (as in Germany).

To conclude: we face a very challenging and uncertain future, nationally and internationally. But if the Labour and co-operative movement can combine the progressive elements of its history with a determination to build a better future, these could become exciting times. After all, unlike many, ours is message of hope at a time when it is sorely needed.


This is a modified version of a talk given at the Yorkshire Council of the Co-operative Party conference on ‘regional government, transport, migration, co-operatives, and Europe’ at Leeds Civic Hall on 16 January 2015. More details of the conference here.

Barry Winter was speaking as chair of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation.

Hilary Benn’s comments are taken from an article ‘The evolution of devolution’ published in a New Statesman supplement: Having Your Say: The role of democracy in modern Britain, which you can access here.

1 Comment

  1. Harry Barnes
    6 February 2015

    On the issue of ‘Scottish Representation In The Union’ see this fine speech by Gordon Brown in the Commons on 4th February –

Comments are closed.