Over two years has passed since the EU referendum. And in that time, millions of hours and columns inches have been spent debating both its causes and its consequences. Though any desire to find a single common cause will always result in either frustration or over simplification, I do believe that one phrase had particular significance, that of “taking back control”. This phrase didn’t just resonate with the millions who voted Leave, it also resonated with millions of people who voted Remain. And the reason it did, was less to do with our membership of the EU, than it was the resentment people feel towards the economic and political status quo.
So far this year much has been written and said about income and wealth inequality. In July, the Resolution Foundation reported that millions of people are no better off today than they were in 2003, with many workers having experienced a drop in wages and, as a result are falling into poverty. Whilst in September, the IPPR reported that “The UK economy is not working”; that “It is no longer delivering rising living standards for a majority of the population”; that “too many people are in insecure jobs”; that “young people are set to be poorer than their parents”; and that the wealth of “the nations and regions of the UK are diverging further”.
Together, these think tanks, the unions and our front bench, are giving a great deal of consideration on how best to tackle these issues. But I believe that with only 27% of the county thinking our system of government is working well – and similarly low percentages feeling parliament represents “people like them” and that ordinary people “have a big say in decision making” – we need also to think about how democratic power is distributed, and how we as a country are governed.
The Labour movement has always been focused on addressing imbalances in power. We have always sided with the weak against the strong, and fought against the unfair distribution of resources, wealth and opportunity. We have achieved much in that struggle, but we have historically placed insufficient emphasis on changing the actual structure of power as much we have the redistribution of its material benefits.
In part this is the product of a political conversation that distils everything into a false choice between either empowered markets or a centralised state. This ignores the fact that many of the political solutions we need lie at the community and organisational level, and that the full potential of our society can only be achieved through putting working people at the heart of decision-making and giving everyone a voice.
If the next Labour Government is to be truly radical, it needs to do more to put working people back at the heart of both our economy and our democracy. This will in part come through the adoption of co-operative principles and values – which our shadow economics and business teams are rightly exploring – but it will also come through constitutional reform, which we have yet to make a firm commitment to. With that in my mind I propose that the next Labour government consider five key policy reforms.
- Regional devolution. The first is reforming the structure of power across the UK, through a more coherent and smarter devolution. We need a Britain of nations and regions, with power devolved not just to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but to the different parts of England as well. That does not diminish English identity, but it does recognise that the problems and preferences of Yorkshire and Northumberland are different to those of Cornwall or London. Devolution of power which only applies to the 15% of the population that live outside of England is no devolution at all. Whether it’s a mayoral model or an assembly model, when we get devolution right it offers a fairer and more democratic means of governing and delivering; one where working people have a greater say in the choices that affect their lives, and a greater stake in the services they rely upon.
- Three Tiers of Government. Second, this devolution would be part of a more coherent and clear three tier governmental structure: the national; the regional and the local. A well as setting laws, the national government would collect and redistribute the majority of taxes. The regional government would be primarily charged with the delivery of public services in accordance with the per-capita budget allocated to them by national government. Standards and guidelines would be set nationally, through such organisations as the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, and a newly formed National Institute for Educational and Training Excellence (which I have written about elsewhere). For an approximation of the scope and remit of regional government; one should think of a settlement that lay somewhere between our most empowered Mayoralties and the Welsh Assembly.
- Reform of the Upper House. A Britain of nations and regions also necessitates a more regionalist element in our national political structures. There are many different aspects to this, but the central one is reforming the House of Lords to institutionalise the place of the nations and regions in a new upper house for the United Kingdom. This upper house should perform a key role as a balancing chamber: giving each part of the UK an equal role that is not solely dependent on their size but on their place as partners in the Union. Its aim should be to create a stronger and more explicit political participation of the nations and regions at the centre. At the same time, we need to retain and strengthen the original role of the upper house as a reviewing body, with the ability to bring in voices that might otherwise not register but which can contribute to the debate; that could mean anyone from the head of the RSPB to the President of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
- Funding and power to Local Unitary Authorities. We also need to distribute more power and funding below the nations and regions to the local level. The current charade gives local authorities increasing responsibilities while their budgets are steadily cut – a vehicle for devolving blame more than real power. We need to allow communities to harness their understanding of the problems they face and the energy to solve them. But this needs to take place within a framework, an overall vision for an end-state that is stable and balances pushing power out and down with preserving coherence and the things that make us stronger together – the basic principles of community, equality, and solidarity.
- Electoral Reform. Finally we should also look again at how Parliament is elected. First Past the Post sometimes benefits Labour and sometimes harms us. But the damage to the country seems unarguable. The system exaggerates the divides within the UK and between its constituent parts, benefits nationalist parties, and produces results that are deeply undemocratic. In 2017 for example, Labour was hugely under-represented in the South-East, where we got almost 30% of votes, but just 10% of the seats. In Scotland the SNP got 37% of the votes and 60% of the seats. Overall, FPTP meant that more than two-thirds of votes cast in the last election did not count towards electing an MP. Under such a broken system, is the sense of disenfranchisement and disillusionment among voters surprising?
I believe that the time has come for political solutions built around: unions, societies, mutual and cooperatives; around the places we live, and a politics that represents those places. But to do this we must learn from the origins of both the Labour Party and the Co-operative party, and make systemic changes so deep-rooted and resilient that they are hard-wired into the constitutional DNA and cannot be easily reversed by the Tories. Through both devolution and mutualism, we must put working people at the heart of decision making; we must end the status quo with which so many have become disenfranchised, and we must give working people the platform they need for their voices to be heard.