Power to the people – why giving away political power isn’t as easy as you might think

11 February 2014
Last night, Ed Miliband made one of his first major speeches on public service reform since becoming Labour Leader in September 2010. Many of the problems he identified in Britain’s public services will be familiar to those who have followed these kinds of speeches in recent decades.

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.

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Comments (5)

  1. Josh Chambers on 12 February 2014 at 11:04 am

    Not sure I understand point 2 – local government wasn’t resistant to being given greater power, they just disliked the top-down change of their governance structures. If anything, the rejection of local mayors showed a desire for a greater local control of their own processes. This is especially true when you consider the case of Birmingham, where local councillors disliked the idea of a mayoral contest that would have been fought by national politicians looking for a new berth.

  2. Joe Randall on 12 February 2014 at 2:05 pm

    Josh you’re definitely right – in the case of mayors, councillors’ objections were largely a response to what looked like centrally-imposed structural changes that weren’t offering them any significant additional powers.

    Our point on local government resistance is really two things:

    Firstly, any party that is serious about decentralisation will have to consider all the effects that their reforms might have on existing local power-holders. A good example here is the referendum on the introduction of an elected North East assembly in 2004. The proposed assembly wouldn’t have taken many powers away from pre-existing authorities, but in order to avoid a three-tier system, a yes vote in the referendum would have meant converting all of them into unitaries. This obviously put a lot of noses out of joint among existing councillors, and created a natural constituency opposing the reform that wasn’t necessarily motivated by the pros and cons of the structure itself.

    Secondly, the reforms we’ve looked at are those where the initial intention was to decentralise significant power. This is true of the 2012 mayors, which, as we discuss in the report, had their proposed powers watered down before they were even put to a vote. So while you’re right that opposition came from top-down change to governance structures, our counter would be that if greater powers were on offer there could at least have been a proper discussion in those areas about whether the benefits of greater powers outweighed the costs of top-down reform. Ultimately what actually happened was an insufficient offer in which local councillors saw no real upsides.

    So overall the failure of a decentralising reform is unlikely to be due to just unthinking opposition from any of these three groups. Instead the problem comes when the interests and concerns of all three are added together. Unless those leading change plan very carefully, their reforms are likely to end up compromised and lacking the support of any of the groups whose consent is necessary for successful shifts in power.

  3. Josh Chambers on 12 February 2014 at 2:46 pm

    I don’t think I’ve been “definitely right” before, especially in the context of a discussion with the IfG! Can I put that on my LinkedIn?

    I’m afraid I still don’t see local government resistance as a problem. You suggest it occurs in two instances: first, when central government insists on the structures and delivery models used by local government; second, when government fails to sufficiently devolve enough power. Both of these cases show not resistance to decentralisation, but frustration when it doesn’t occur.

    Local government resistance is highly unlikely if power is really devolved down from central government. After all, surely decentralisation means allowing local decision-makers to determine their own structures? Certainly that’s the point Ed Miliband has made when discussing education policies, and his speech inspired this blog post.

    I’m arguing against the notion of local government resistance because I think it’s a bit of a red herring, and could be presented as an obstacle by intransigent central government when in fact it isn’t one.

  4. Joe Randall on 12 February 2014 at 4:16 pm

    Not so sure this time!

    It would definitely seem like a red herring if people in central government were to argue that they couldn’t simply give powers to local government because councillors would resist it. But, as we argue in the report, central government tends to resist this kind of unilateral decentralisation because (often fairly) it lacks faith in the competence of local government, its accountability for failure, and its ability to exercise additional powers at an appropriate scale.

    This means that attempts to decentralise tend to come with requirements from central government that stronger or more direct accountability mechanisms be put in place (e.g. mayors); that local government prove its competence and ability to exercise additional powers (e.g. city deal negotiations); or that new political structures operate at a different scale to the old ones (e.g. the creation of the Greater London Authority and elected regional assemblies). Perhaps some of this may be put down to central government ‘intransigence’, but these are also often valid – or at least understandable – concerns about where powers are exercised most effectively.

    You also say that surely decentralisation means allowing local decision-makers to determine their own structures. While this can be true, I definitely don’t think it always holds. Responsibility for service failures, rightly or wrongly, have a habit in the UK of defaulting back to central government (see our 2011 report ‘Nothing to do with me’). Because of this, it seems to me that central government has a reasonable claim to the right to determine local government structures that allow for proper local accountability.

  5. Josh Chambers on 12 February 2014 at 5:24 pm

    Dagnabbit!

    Isn’t it strange that central government “lacks faith” in the competence of local government, but has poached a large number of local government chief executives to come into Whitehall!

    Central government is often happy to pass control over to unaccountable contractors, which unlike local government, aren’t democratically elected or bound by the Freedom of Information Act. Central government may struggle to hold all local authorities to account if it devolves power, but that’s sort of the point – local people hold local politicians accountable through local elections.

    Your final point is something of a Catch 22 – responsibility will always default to the national stage when politicians and the press feel that’s where the power is. This does not occur in more federalised or localised systems, though. Devolve the power, and accountability will follow. Might also be good for our struggling local newspapers.

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