For years, this country has been at odds with the practice of most democratic countries when it comes to empowering the electorate. First Past The Post has kept minor insurgent parties at bay for decades and has long been seen by both Labour and the Conservatives – the two governing parties of the last one hundred years – as protection for their future prospects, no matter how unfair it may be to voters.
Cross-party support for greater devolution?
Recently, though, the leaders of England’s Conservative, Labour, and Lib Dem parties have all referred to greater devolution as one pathway towards greater engagement of the “left behind” voters in various parts of the country. Just last month the acting head of the Church of England referred to the importance of greater recognition of regional identities as one part of the solution to inequalities.
We already do have some devolution, and with it comes fairer voting. They go together in practice and perhaps as precedent. One only has to look at the battles for voting in devolved Scotland, and even for individuals in mayoral contests in London, Manchester and elsewhere, to see how geographical relevance encourages democracy and policies relevant to communities.
“The results of devolved elections are almost always more proportional than UK general elections, which means that smaller parties are better represented in devolved legislatures, and single-party majorities are rare.”
Centralisation breeds discontent and resentment
Looked at another way, one can see how centralised Whitehall decision making and top-down funding for regions breeds resentment. A lack of understanding about how local economies work and the lives of the majority of people makes for poor targeting, the underfunding of actual needs and a perception of being patronised, while those areas with which the governing elite are more familiar seem to do disproportionately well, increasing both the perception and reality of unfairness.
Yet for all its apparent merits, devolution seems to be yet another of those slogan policies which the major parties fall shy of actually implementing. Despite their rhetoric, neither Tory nor Labour leaderships yet show any real sign of a willingness to back it up with action. PM Johnson seems driven by a desire to control everything and not to trust others. This sucks both democracy and money out of regions, while the electoral system makes any challenge to their hold on power extremely difficult.
Devolution need not mean corruption
One argument used against devolution or delegated fiscal powers concerns the risk of corruption. Human nature being what it is, the lure of influence, popularity or inducements has always affected some.
In 1972, the Poulson scandal created a perception which endured long afterwards that local authorities were not to be trusted. Ensuring sufficient numbers of councillors and staff of integrity to encourage delegation of tax-raising and expenditure was thought, as a consequence of that scandal, to be unachievable. Whether this has been a genuine ongoing view or a pretext for retention of centralised control, it certainly put back the cause of devolution for a long time, until the Blair government at last grasped the nettle.
A confederacy of cronies
Today, whatever the interpretation of decisions made by Ministers or local authorities, notably in relation to planning matters, the examples so far set by the national assemblies and metropolitan mayors seem to belie the Poulson precedent. The success of these and their openness to voter scrutiny seem to act as reassurance in direct contrast to the seemingly unaccountable web of cronyism at play in central government.
It is the self-selecting, self-serving tiny clique in power in Whitehall which displays the corruption which so horrifies the decent people of this country, but which has so far been beyond redress.
Perhaps it is time that those stated aims for greater devolved governance, taxation and expenditure were turned into policy so that local services actually reflect local needs. By being closer to their communities, local leaders would be more visible, transparent and accountable than the disconnected public-school clique in London’s bubble of privilege.
Devolution: the pathway to true democracy?
There is another benefit to derive from devolution, however: elections for the devolved assemblies have shown how fairer, proportional representation engages the electorate not only during campaigns but in between them, as voters have greater opportunity to elect people who more closely represent their interests.
If devolution, already the standard-bearer for fair voting, can be expanded it will act as the emollient for the truer democracy we need, even while the reactionary dinosaurs of Whitehall cling onto their disproportionate majority and centralised levers of power. Rather than yet again shouldering the Sisyphean task of PR for General Elections, how about espousing real devolution with fair voting in the regions, winning back control for people where they live, building a fairer society for all and showing the dinosaurs the way forward.