‘Take back control’ and the demand to transfer power back to the people were apparently central demands of the Leave campaign during the EU referendum in 2016. These aims were regularly put forward as the main reason for walking away from the European Union. Who can deny these aspirations? The need to share power and reduce the influence of the executive has been a long-standing challenge in British politics. In fact these aspirations have been at the heart of progressive thinking for a number of years, so how was this agenda taken over by groups on the right and how can these principles be re-energised by Liberal Democrats?
Power to the People
Over 10 years ago I contributed to a major review of UK decision-making called The Power Inquiry. I had been an active campaigner against the Iraq War and I was tired of a political class that was out of touch with my generation. I had seen the Labour Government ignore the largest protests in British history and I didn’t believe they were listening. I wanted to see power being given back to the people, to take back control!
The Power Inquiry was supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to offer a comprehensive analysis of the various reforms that would be needed to re-shape British politics and give people a more direct say over decision-making. It set out a blueprint for action and a clear plan for how to transform UK politics, which is still relevant today. It covered a number of key areas of reform of politics: opening up local budgets, transparent party funding, House of Lords and electoral reform. It called for a clear statement on the balance of powers between the executive (the Prime Minister) and parliament; this written constitutional document would include specific powers for parliament to oversee the executive, including government appointments and greater powers to initiate legislation. But it went further in also calling for clear guidelines on the direct involvement of the public in policy-making and decisions, even going so far as to state that citizens themselves should have the right to ‘initiate legislative processes’.
This was a bold set of recommendations but where was the question of Europe? In fact, we hosted a series of ‘European Citizens Consultations’ to understand people’s priorities regarding Europe and here again people called for greater involvement of citizens, as well as a demand to hear more directly from their MEPs. But there was no sense that the EU was the major obstacle to a more democratic system in the UK, instead it was highlighted that the House of Lords has a more direct influence on laws in this country and is less directly accountable than the European institutions.
The Power Inquiry was very effective at reaching a wide range of citizens as it relied on self-organised debates and ‘Democracy Dinners’ as well as a series of workshops. As a result it secured interest from Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron as they rose to prominence in their parties, and they each promised to re-shape our system and decentralise power… but these reforms were never delivered. When Gordon Brown came to power he set out some clear points of reform including reforming of the House of Lords to make it 80% elected chamber as well as showing an apparent interest in transferring power to the local level. However, he struggled to garner support within the Labour Party for these reforms and was diverted by the financial crash of 2008.
Then in the 2010 election there was real energy for reform, the ongoing MP’s expenses scandal and the continued financial challenges meant that it seemed that the time was ripe for many of these changes. The demand for people power and an end to cronyism in the Westminster bubble crystallised around Nick Clegg and I remember the march to ‘Take Back Parliament’ from Trafalgar Square on the weekend of the coalition discussions in 2010.
This led to some specific reforms being agreed as part of the Coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, in particular an agreement to a referendum on moving to an ‘alternative vote’ electoral system. So it seemed that the cause of reform would be taken forward by the Coalition Government and that the long-held demand for electoral reform would be delivered.
But it was at this stage that the agenda began to be subverted. Instead of fighting a campaign on the pros and cons of a more proportional electoral system, the ‘no’ campaign in the AV referendum of 2011 focused its attention on the supposed costs involved in changing the system, going so far as to run infamous posters highlighting that the new system would apparently lead to a diversion of funding away from the NHS and that babies lives would be under threat. The ‘no’ campaign focused on messages about simple decision-making and cost at a time of austerity and set about undermining a proposal that was aimed precisely at creating a more accountable system.
As the Coalition Government rolled on and people continued to feel disenfranchised, the Liberal Democrats seemed to lose the reform agenda and as the 2015 election approached, the Conservative party saw a chance to capture the demand for reform.
Hacking an agenda
At this stage the language of reform was hijacked by the right – they adopted many of the phrases that had been used by progressive reformers in the first decade of 2000 but crucially they simplified the target and focused it on the EU. Rather than accept the more difficult job of opening up domestic politics, cleaning up political funding rules, reforming our battered voting system, or reforming the largest unelected chamber of all, they focused on a distant target in Brussels as a panacea for all our ills.
It was at this stage that the use of social media (learnt from US campaigners and donors) also began to play a greater role in campaigns in the UK. The Conservatives recognised that they could reach directly to those people who have been feeling neglected, undervalued and under-represented through social media and offer them a target for their frustrations – the EU. While the demand to re-think the UK’s relationship with the EU had been raised following the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, there had not been any significant increase in the EU’s powers and, in fact, many member states were increasingly aware of a need to ensure more open decision-making in the EU. So there was no real external trigger for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU but a pledge to hold a referendum gave the Conservative party an opportunity to win over a new segment of disenfranchised voters with a promise of giving them the choice.
After winning the election in 2015, the situation became even more volatile as David Cameron moved quickly to table a referendum in which he would campaign to stay ‘In’ the EU, while many of his own party would campaign to leave. Clearly Cameron did not foresee the level of funding that would go to the ‘Leave’ campaign, nor how it would ruthlessly exploit the lessons learned in the AV referendum. Once again the message was kept very simple – ‘the EU is a waste of money and this money would otherwise be spent on your public services’.
This is a very attractive message but it does not take into account the complexities of modern economic reality, that membership of the EU more than pays for itself in terms of the additional investment and jobs created and that as one of the three largest members of the EU, the UK and its elected MEPs do have a significant direct role in all the major decisions of the Union.
So the language of reform was subverted and the very people who were already most disenfranchised were targeted by foreign-funded social media campaigns to be persuaded that the lack of investment in public services was due to the EU, rather than the financial crash and lack of domestic investment.
The road to real reform
So where do we go from here? It’s clear that the demand for reform is real and people in the UK continue to feel distant from decision-makers. There is therefore a need to be brave and remind people that, as the Power Inquiry set out in 2006, the real power continues to rest with the executive and that the role of the EU has never been as overbearing as it is made out to be.
As the reality of Brexit kicks in, many people will realise that leaving the EU is not the panacea they were promised and that a transfer of power requires changes closer to home. Real reform will require a re-balancing of power within the UK; this should be set out in a Constitutional Convention to bring together key reforms.
A few major areas should be considered:
Power of Parliament
As set out in the Power Inquiry, the balance between the executive and Parliament continues to be very one-sided. In fact, as has been widely noted, the current EU Withdrawal Bill actually increases the power of the executive and further reduces the role of Parliament to scrutinise legislation and develop policy. This must surely be re-visited and Standing Committees should be given a clear independent role in moderating and deliberating on policy; furthermore, Select Committees on specific ministerial areas, such as the Work & Pensions Committee or Public Accounts Committee should be given direct oversight powers including on departmental budgets and public appointments. Secondly the question of electoral reform should be explained in a simpler way to move towards an understanding that a more proportional system will enable greater choice and therefore a more representative Parliament. Finally there should be a move towards an elected accountable House of Lords, based on a proportional system on a regional constituency basis for extended terms of 10 years.
Power of Place
One of the ways to re-build trust in political processes is to show people that the decisions taken in their neighbourhood do reflect their community needs. In order to do this, decision-making must be brought closer to people’s experience in their own area. This requires decentralising power away from Whitehall departments down to town halls and local councils. The devolution of powers that has taken place in Scotland and Wales is also needed in England; this should include a transfer of greater tax raising powers, as well as greater discretion on local services, such as housing, policing and health to ensure that these services are accountable to local authority elected representatives.
Power of People
The final part of these reforms should focus on the right of local people to have a direct say over issues that matter to them in their area. Increasingly, people are familiar with online petitions and crowdsourcing ideas for particular causes, many people engage on specific issues more readily than they do on local elections because they can see the direct impact of their choice. It is therefore time to make greater use of online technologies to enable local residents to have a direct say over local matters. This could take the form of self-organised petitions or a more structured form of collaborative decision-making, such as an online poll featuring key questions on an urgent issue, such as public spaces or road use. Finally, it may be time to revisit the oldest idea of democracy of all, to provide a regular open space, perhaps monthly, for local citizens to join a people’s assembly in their local area to hear about the key issues and share their priorities directly with the elected members.
If we get this right, then we may finally give power back to the people of this country.