Radical federalism

Sam Tarry calls for a radical federalism to connect with the people’s desire for greater power over their lives

Democratic reform must be high up Labour’s agenda. As shadow minister for elections I have been working closely with Scottish and Welsh Labour to develop our commitments to a deeper devolution of power in the economy and society.

This year we have a huge electoral challenge, with elections for the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments, mayoralties in cities throughout England, and many local elections.

This is important because it shows how different our democracy is now compared to the 1980s. We have an asymmetric picture of devolved powers, with some areas like London controlling a large infrastructure – for example, Transport for London – with local councils overseeing education, adult and childcare, housing and local environment.

We have an Everest-style mountain to climb to win a majority in 2024. How do we use the anti-Tory majority in the country to fashion a new federalism alongside the challenges in England and London, almost another country and economy on its own? It’s both a question of culture and politics.

We are clear on the need for greater economic democracy, but the 2016 referendum underlined the lack of power people feel. Give people a binary choice, many people in smaller towns, who feel a lack of power, were attracted by the idea of ‘taking back control’. In normal elections people are not given this sort of say.

Devolution in Scotland has meant ordinary citizens now have a higher satisfaction level about elections following changes to the electoral system, according to the Electoral Reform Society. They have higher electoral turnouts and appear more positive generally about political engagement. The Citizens Convention in Scotland that preceded the referendum on independence meant there was real buy-in from citizens, charities and civil society organisations. This has been sustained since.

When we were last in government huge opportunities were missed. Yes, we had devolution, but the changes to the House of Lords did not go nearly far enough. Our first-past-the-post electoral system was untouched. We now have to fashion a manifesto attractive to people and other parties — the SNP, Green Party and Lib Dems — who we may need to form a government.

We may well see a further splintering of the UK in the near future. We need to anticipate and plan for constitutional transformation. I’m working with Clive Lewis to develop this. With the Tories attacking devolution, Labour needs to develop a fully fleshed out plan for the whole UK.

We are talking about a radical federalism involving devo-max and something big that relates to the democratic deficit in England. We also need to target smaller towns and rural areas, not just the bigger cities. Labour in Wales has been doing some pioneering work, particularly illustrated with early interventions in the first wave of the pandemic. Devolving new powers needs to be at heart of our future manifesto.

One of the plus points in Corbyn’s manifestos was economic democracy. But the lock in of progressive democratic political change has not yet been done. These two forms need to be connected, particularly building a movement for democratic reform in the trade union movement.

More devolution needs to be done in a way that is meaningful to people.

Ed Miliband’s plan for a Green Industrial Revolution builds on the Corbyn period. We have got to enable people to envision what this means for their jobs, for their communities and their wider environment. Economic democracy and putting real power in people’s hands need to be our goals.

This is an edited transcript of Sam Tarry’s talk at the Chartist AGM.

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