Power to the people – why giving away political power isn’t as easy as you might think
Miliband, like Cameron, Brown, Blair, and Major, sees the state as excessively centralised and insufficiently responsive to service users and communities. There are nuances of emphasis – Miliband is at pains to point out that he does not want to see “the individual acting simply as a consumer” – but similarities outweigh differences.
The solutions he offers are also variations on familiar themes. When Ed Miliband promises that “the next Labour manifesto will commit to a radical reshaping of services so that local communities can come together and make the decisions that matter to them”, we can hear echoes of Cameron’s similar commitment in 2009. “We need to redistribute power and responsibility. It’s your community and you should have control over it. So we need decentralisation.”
The problem is not that the diagnosis is wrong. England is remarkably centralised by international standards – and a the vast majority of people who’ve looked at the question think there are likely to be benefits from taking some power and fiscal control away from the Westminster and Whitehall.
No, the problem is that decentralisation is much easier said than done. Yesterday, the Institute published, Achieving Political Decentralisation, a report examining thirty years of attempts to transfer powers away from Westminster. As devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London show, it is possible to decentralise power. But these reforms succeeded where many others had less impact than was hoped for initially, such as attempts to introduce elected mayors, or failed entirely, like the aborted attempt to create directly-elected regional assemblies in 2004.
Resistance from one of the main groups who need to support – or at least consent to – shifts in power and control is the main reason past reforms have been watered down or scrapped. This occurs at different levels:
1. Resistance by national government – for example the centre, especially the Treasury, lacks faith in the competence of local government and its accountability for failure, but also struggles to agree within itself on decentralisation plans.
2. Resistance by local government – for example in the case of elected mayors and the North-East assembly, local councillors were reluctant to lose powers.
3. Resistance from the public – members of the public are largely apathetic to local reforms and sceptical about more powers for politicians, even locally.
Successful reformers overcome this potential opposition by building widespread support for changes, ensuring that decentralised powers are accompanied by clear accountability and by making sure that proposed changes are meaningful and intelligible to the public.
Vision is important – parties contemplating decentralisation must create a compelling case for change and be clear on the scale of change required. But it is imperative for manifesto writers to also recognise that change can be costly, and to understand the level of political capital that must be spent for it to be effective.
This recognition is a first step in creating a strategy for decentralisation that has prospects for success. We think that a serious attempt to decentralise would have similar characteristics to the policies of devolution to Scotland and London, including:
• Clear commitment of the party leader
• Preparations beginning early
• A clear manifesto pledge with a comprehensive set of powers on offer – about which the public can make a choice, for example through a referendum
• A timeframe for implementation
• Leadership and coordination within the party, so that other ministers or shadow-ministers are not making commitments that clash with decentralisation
• Proper consideration of how new governance structures will work and what trade-offs may be required.
By setting his stall out in this speech, Miliband has only put in place the first building block of an effective and implementable strategy for decentralisation. But there is much more work to do.