In 1934 the political historian RH Tawney said that the UK is ‘the oldest and toughest plutocracy in the world’. Our democracy has been unjust for a very long time – too ready to doff its hat to privilege and wealth.
We have had years of scandals as regards cash for questions, the power of lobbyists, and dubious parliamentary expense claims. The recent Brexit debate and paralysis has further revealed the deep problems. Brexit has seeped into the rotten cracks of our democracy and parliamentary processes and made them chasms. Our democracy and ‘mother of all’ parliaments is in bad shape, it has now been fully exposed: arcane, archaic and addled. Unable to represent properly and inchoate. It sets the tone for our wider democracy and it is increasingly discordant.
In local and regional democracy terms we have tinkered around the edges for decades. The present devolution agenda and its devolution deals have been framed by austerity and locked into an economic model prescribed by the Treasury and Whitehall. Our city regional and local representatives are too often left to plead for resources to a Whitehall, which if truth be told, still hold all the cards.
And then we have slogans, with devolution wrapped up into marketing brands like Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine. Power for the already powerful: slogans cooked up in old ways, by national politicians schooled in spin over substance.
There is no meaningful shift in power, deep reformist ethos or new democracy in devolution. Indeed, present devolution barely considers democracy. For all the warm words there is far too little citizens and people in city devolution. And poor turnouts and cynicism are a part reflection of this.
This is a shame as we have had decent mayoral debates, decent candidates and now there are mayors who want to deliver meaningful step change in the fortunes of their city regions: for people, communities and businesses. However, they are thwarted by Whitehall and stymied by the terms of the devolution deals, which are framed by an economic model that favours city centre economic investment, financialisation and agglomeration over investment in peripheral areas and the real economy. It has failed to deliver a social devolution to counteract the deep public austerity.
As such, we are left with growing divides and investment competition between towns, cities, regions and a confusing and willy-nilly set of differing powers and responsibilities. We need to end this haphazard and unfair devolution once and for all.
In our CLES Manifesto, we start from the premise that the UK is over centralised and economically unbalanced and we have a flawed devolution.
At the heart of this is an understanding that our democracy should be an agora – a market place, and not a closed temple for the powerful. As such our institutions of governance need to be opened up, letting fresh air, ideas and the people in.
We must allow the energy, vim and creativity of communities across all our great cities to be truly unleashed. Whilst great things do already happen, they are too much of a struggle: battling for sustenance, thwarted by austerity, and stultified by the rigidity of the democratic institutions and governance processes. We do have some metro mayor elections in May and these are an opportunity to make the step change, and we should start that process now. We need incumbents and new Metro mayors to be more bullish to Whitehall, innovate, experiment and start to begin the task of developing new approaches to local economies, reforming city regional institutions and implementing citizens’ assemblies for key strategic and policies including spatial and economic plans. Let the people in!
At the national level, we need to end the tinkering once and for all. We need a national constitutional convention.
This conversation should consider:
- how to develop an enduring package for constitutional reform;
- the likelihood of a federal UK and England;
- reshaping local government so that it sits alongside central government as co-director of the nation.
- new innovations in deliberative democracy such as a Citizens’ Convention.
We are in historic democratic, political and planetary bad times. Greta Thunberg says we must ‘act as if our house is on fire’ to tackle climate emergency. This means mobilisation of people power and democracy like never before. This democracy, parliament and major cities will not be capable of meeting these immense challenges, if we do not make fundamental reforms.
We need a new constitution. A proper national settlement based on fairness and equality. We need a national citizens’ convention. All of us need to get involved and we need a politics that embraces that, not ignore it.
Neil McInroy is the Chief Executive of (CLES) Centre for Local Economic Strategies. They are the national organisation for local economies- developing progressive economics for people, planet and place. They work by thinking and doing, to achieve social justice and effective public services.