With today’s result in the Scottish independence referendum firmly against cutting ties with the rest of the United Kingdom, we can now start to think about how devolution can be put into practice for England. Perhaps now we can start to turn the tide of the ever-present onslaught against local government. I’ve always wondered what’s wrong with local government?
All governments in the last forty years have given local democracy the cold shoulder, taking powers into the centre and Whitehall and effectively telling local people that they can’t make their own decisions. The constitutional changes that we need to urgently bring in must ensure that local democracy is revitalised by breaking up the way Whitehall operates and ensuring that local councils have the responsibility and accountability for making things work for people in their local communities.
That accountability, though, can’t come with our present electoral system. The first past the post system for local government is bust. In Leicester we have fifty Labour councillors out of fifty-four council seats. That isn’t good for democracy. In Leicestershire there is never any hope that anyone other than the Tories will take control of county hall. That isn’t good for democracy. The number of councillors in the council chambers has to reflect the number of votes cast for the different parties, or how else will there ever be a choice for the electorate? A proportionate system is urgently required.
The next thing is the abolition of the House of Lords to be replaced with a proportionally elected chamber drawn from the nations and regions according to their population. The anachronism of the House of Lords is embarrassing. Let’s get rid of it and replace it with something suited to the modern age. Lets make sure the representatives in the House of Lords are well paid so that ordinary working people can stand for election and not just those with vested interests, deep pockets or party connections.
John Prescott mucked-up the devolution debate in 1999 when the North East was asked if they want their own elected assembly. Lets not ask this time, lets just bring it in, devolving authority for services and care to the regions of England in the same way that they have been devolved to the nations of the United Kingdom. This will bring more power for our cities, who will be able to act to invest more effectively, away from the oligarchs of the South East of England.
It will also bring about more transparency in budget settlements and active redistribution. We can’t continue to fuel growth in the South East and expect people in the South East to share the proceeds of that growth without setting the rest of us free to make our own decisions, raise the taxes and make the investments that we want to do outside of the control of the South East elite.
There are two other factors I’d consider. First, break up the BBC and make it a federated organisation with a responsibility to serve the voices of the people in the nations and regions, but with a trust that has a one member, one vote, cooperative policy, so that no one region can dominate the way the BBC’s media output and services are shaped. Secondly, I’d make a big change to our competition policies. I’d sweep away closed-bid tendering and make every commercial organisation who wants to work with our public sector do so on an open and transparent basis.
I would also devolve responsibility for competition in a local area down to the lowest level of government possible – even down to parish councils. We need a competition revolution in the UK, so that the crony capitalists who use globalisation as a mask for ripping us off aren’t allowed to any more. Which bankers went to prison for the scandal of the 2008 financial crash? None. How many companies pad-out their tenders with inflated charges for menial services when working for schools and hospitals and local councils? Who has a say on supermarkets opening in towns and the traditional high streets being decimated as a result?
When you hear a politician say ‘there is no alternative’, there is. There is always an alternative, we just have to make the case for it and to put it in action when we get the chance to run things. One thing to come out of the Scottish referendum debate is a clear sense that austerity in the UK is not wanted, that people want to take pride in their local communities, and that people don’t want to be forced to accept an American, neo-liberal form of globalisation. There is a strong voice for an alternative, and along with our progressive friends in Scotland, the rest of the UK can be more confident about claiming that alternative.