Power to the people of England

Urgent action must be taken now to resolve the English democratic deficit and the divide between the south-east and rest of England, argues George Foulkes

Last November I wrote an article for Progress arguing the case for a United Kingdom constitutional convention to deal with the English democratic deficit, reform of the House of Lords and a move towards a more federal UK.

Since then events have caused me to modify my thinking on how we should proceed, although not on the ultimate aim.

In Scotland the clamour for a second independence referendum from the Scottish National party and Scottish Greens, although not from the Scottish people, has increased. Gordon Brown has also elaborated on what powers might be devolved to Scotland from Brussels if Brexit goes ahead.

Wales and Northern Ireland, once the present impasse is resolved, will follow suit. So the powers of the parliament and assemblies of the nation of Scotland, principality of Wales and the province of Northern Ireland are becoming both clearer and very much more extensive.

As a result the English democratic deficit has widened and is widening further and urgent action is needed to resolve it.

Although London has been given more power also that only serves to exacerbate the growing divide in wealth, employment and opportunity between London and the rest of England outside the south-east.

Simultaneously, the south-east, and London in particular, is becoming congested, polluted and increasingly difficult for basic services to be maintained as workers in the public sector are forced out by rising costs, of housing in particular.

So urgent action needs to be taken now to resolve the English democratic deficit and the divide between the south-east and the rest of England.

The Tory solutions of the ‘northern powerhouse’, elected mayors in selective areas and other gimmicks merely exacerbate the problem, particularly as local government finance is squeezed by Westminster.

What is needed is real, comprehensive and coherent reform. However, rather than through a UK constitutional convention, which would be complicated and elaborate, it would be wiser to look at establishing an English constitutional convention, which could be constituted and operated as the Scottish constitutional convention did in the 90’s.

That convention was not set up by government but by some of the opposition parties, trades unions, churches and the rest of civil society but was implemented by the new Labour government when it took power in 1997.

The English convention itself should also be large and widely representative of local and national elected members, civil society and the wider public. In Scotland it was jointly chaired by David Steel from the Liberal Democrats and first Harry Ewing and then Meta Ramsay from Labour.

However the detailed work was done in Scotland, and could be done in England by a smaller executive reporting to the larger body. This was chaired in Scotland by a cleric, Canon Kenyon Wright. An appropriate body such as the Local Government Association could be asked to service the commission and funding might be sought from trusts, unions, councils, churches & civil society generally.

I would suggest that the convention examine options for English regions which would exercise powers devolved from Westminster and Brussels and not centralise powers currently carried out by councils locally.

These could include the National Health Service, inward investment, anti-poverty programmes, major roads & transport, strategic planning, universities and aspects of industry.

The commission would examine and recommend the functions and also the appropriate boundaries of the new regional authorities.

One suggestion I have seen would be for six large regions: The north, the Midlands, the west, the east, the south-East and London, but there are other options based on current regional divisions which could be looked at by the commission.

Once they are agreed and set up then, together with the three national parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the federal structure would be in place and the Lords could be replaced by a senate of the nations and regions chosen by each of the assemblies of the nations and new regions.

There is no reason why such a commission could not be set up now, if the political will is there, in the same way as it was in Scotland to be implemented when a government of a different political colour comes to power.

Indeed, it might help to bring that about.

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George Foulkes is a member of the House of Lords and a former member of the Scottish parliament. He tweets @GeorgeFoulkes

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