Power to the people

imagesThe Scottish Independence Referendum, with it’s 90% turnout, votes for 16 year olds, passionate debate and nail-biting conclusion (well, up until the point where the result became far more clear-cut than expected) has once again re-energised the debate about consitutional reform and change.

We have been here before, when Scotland and Wales got devolved legislatures, when Labour tried with mixed results to introduce elected mayors and regional assemblies, when the Coalition (or at least the Lib Dem part of it) sought to introduce AV. Changes to our governance are glacially slow, as the 18 year gap between the first referenda on devolution and the arrival of the Scots and Welsh assemblies showed.

The rise of UKIP and the anti-establishment vote – and how ironic that the protest vote should now be coalescing around the most establishment of parties in terms of policy rather than office – may indicate the apogee of media and cultural cynicism over the status quo, but it is a warning to all mainstream politicians to engage and persuade rather than allow the ugly politics of division and blame to prosper.

So how do we tackle the “democratic deficit”, and challenge the idea that mainstream politicians have lost touch?

At one point in our national politics federalism somehow became a by-word for power leaking to Brussels, but it ought to mean power devolved to the right level to tackle macro or micro issues, from climate change to dog fouling in the park. Just as the European Parliament has no place in trying to manage the affairs of every town, local councils should not occupy themselves with debates on international trade deals.

Good government involves dealing with issues at the appropriate level, with strong local government supported by strong national legislatures and a powerful European umbrella engaging on the world stage. City regions have a part to play, whether Greater Manchester or Greater Brighton, but as local government bodies they must stay in touch with their localities as well as competing on an international level.

Having seen the boundary review fall alongside AV, Cameron has lost two opportunities to have the number of Labour MPs cut without a General Election vote being cast. Excluding Scottish Labour MPs from English voting under the West Lothian question could deprive Labour of it’s majority on many votes in Westminster even if it has an overall Parliamentary majority. Reform, or resistance to it, should never be based on party advantage. Labour at least has shown that it is prepared to give away power, or at least risk doing so, through devolution.

The risk is that the public feel a lack of trust in the system, a lack of faith in the competence of politicians or even a lack of belief that a Party shares their aims and values, will leave the door ajar for an anti-politics grouping like UKIP or worse to benefit from. People may want change, but do they really want a costly additional tier of English politicians between councillors and Westminster MPs as in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh? Those bodies are right for the challenges that nations and our capital face, but elsewhere is there really a job for them to do?

Local government is the most efficient sector of government. It has absorbed enormous cuts, yet public perception continues to regard it as amongst the most wasteful. As much as we need a fresh view of Westminster, people need to take a new look at their town and city halls and assess what they do and how they do it.

In an increasingly interconnected world, the answer doesn’t lie in separation, nationalism or constitutional tinkering. The answer lies in a politics that makes peoples lives better, gives them security and opportunity within a community where they and their neighbours prosper.

We need a system where voters can engage in way where they know their voice is heard, but one where outcomes are not biased only to those who have time to make the meeting or who shout the loudest. A system where people understand that politician’s pledges are not a guarantee but a genuine indication of values and direction of travel down a road that is increasingly difficult, but where we share a sense of common purpose. A system where debate is not irreconcilable division but a clash of ideas from which positive outcomes emerge. We need votes at 16 backed with an education that puts civic engagement and political education at the heart of what we teach our young people.

Co-operative politics offers those solutions, with community-led co-operatives operating close to those who govern them, public services run on mutual and democratic lines, responsive to need and accountable to those who use them. A stronger local government empowered again to make the choices residents want, using public money in an efficient way to deliver, in partnership with other local organisations, the outcomes their communities need, and able to deliver genuine power to the people.

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