Massive democratic deficit not answered

Paul Salveson on Brown’s inadequate response to over-centralised UK 

Labour’s new report A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy has had a mixed reception. The report was the work of the Commission on the UK’s Future chaired by Gordon Brown. The SNP described its proposals for Scotland as “underwhelming”, and I must say that was my reaction to its ideas for England.  

It’s a weighty piece of work, without a doubt, running to over 150 pages. It recognises that there is a big problem with our centralised United Kingdom: “The UK is at a constitutional moment, and needs change comparable to the important shifts in power in the 19th and 20th centuries that widened the franchise, reformed Parliament or, more recently, introduced devolution. Our economy is faltering. Our democracy has lost the trust of its people, who have repeatedly voted for change. 17.4m people voted for Brexit in 2016, and 1.6m in Scotland voted to leave the UK in 2014. Britain urgently needs a new government.” 

We can all agree on that and the follow-on which states that “if we are to transform our country, we must change not just who governs us but how we are governed.” Yet this is where the report is weak, ducking out of the chance to transform the structures of UK governance and really energise the regions and nations of the UK. That’s not to say that there’s nothing good about the report – that would be a ridiculous response. Where it is perhaps clearest is on House of Lords reform – proposing to replace it with an elected second chamber, an “Assembly of the Regions and Nations”. Yet ironically, while the House of Lords is a very easy target, it probably isn’t the biggest issue facing constitutional reform. As the report says, for all its lack of democratic credibility, the Lords does have a lot of expertise which is put to good use in scrutinising and challenging governments of the day.  

The report scores several good hits, highlighting the problems of over-centralisation: “Brexit has not delivered the control people were promised. Britain hasn’t taken back control – Westminster and Whitehall have. And our over-centralised system has shown itself to be open to abuse – the conventions of our unwritten constitution ignored; conflicts of interest allowed to fester; the use of patronage intensified, and ethical standards – and advisers on ethics – swept aside, ignored by a conservative political class that has tried to act without constraint. Meanwhile, decisions of vital importance to communities – including the allocation of funds under Levelling Up – are made for increasingly naked party political reasons, further undermining trust. All of this makes the case for a radical devolution of power to locally elected and locally accountable representatives best placed to identify the needs and opportunities in their own areas, and to unleash the potential that exists everywhere throughout the country. Our aim must be to put power and resources in the hands of communities, towns, cities, regions and nations, to make their own decisions about what will work best for them.” 

Yes, absolutely; but the report fails to recognise that the levers at our disposal, particularly in England, are woefully inadequate. The mishmash of poorly funded local councils, a mix of unitary and two-tier authorities, with combined authorities in metropolitan areas, is a very poor structure indeed to be given significant new powers. Yet we’re told that “across England, we recommend that every town and city is given the powers needed to draw together their own economic and social plan and take more control of their economic future. In particular, we believe that by empowering Mayors, Combined Authorities and local government in new economic partnerships, we can create and advance a supportive environment for the dynamic new clusters in the digital, medical, environmental and creative industries in a new pro-growth strategy, and make every part of our country more prosperous.” 

Really? I don’t think so, and the report’s authors missed a great opportunity to democratise the combined authorities by in effect creating new regional forms of government that would be directly elected. Instead, we’re told that “[w]e cannot turn the clock back to recreate Regional Development Agencies, or still less to impose a system of regional government from the centre on the different parts of England. This gap must be filled by growth from the bottom up.” 

Yet what we are likely to get is a confusing mixture of mostly unelected local bodies or “partnerships” with increasing powers given to mayoral combined authorities which have just one person being subject to direct election. There is a massive democratic deficit with the combined authorities, which has excited little comment amongst the political classes – either because they are outside of London so of little interest, or there are too many vested interests involved in keeping them as they are, overseen by leaders of the relevant constituent authorities. The report does nothing to address this and, overall, represents a huge missed opportunity to create a ‘New Britain’. There is a model out there already with the directly-elected (by PR) governments in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. Why not the same for the English regions? 

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