Lasagne and chips

Fuzzy federalism meets lukewarm localism in Labour’s democracy review

Belgians often refer to our “institutional lasagne”, meaning the confusion caused by multiple different levels of regional and local government, collaborating and sometimes competing over the same territory. Reading the report of Labour’s “Commission on the UK’s Future” I can see the UK heading in the same direction.

By jules / stonesoup – Mum’s lasagne, CC BY 2.0,

At the heart of the problem are two structural challenges, which the report fails to solve. One is almost impossible, the other merely very difficult.

The almost impossible problem is the status of England. Too large to be just one element of a federal state, its identity too strong to be broken up into federal regions, England makes comparison with other federal states pointless. To imagine it in the German context, you have to imagine that Germany is four states – Berlin, Saxony, Hesse and everything else. The “everything else” is England. 

I don’t have a solution to this problem, and neither does the report. But not having a solution means that its constitutional recommendations are stuck halfway between knowing that new UK structures are needed, and an inability to describe those structures except in the vaguest terms.

The very first recommendation is for a new constitutional statute, which is in itself a good idea. But the report’s draft of it describes the UK as “a group of nations, peoples and places and [sic] which have come together in a shared Parliament at Westminster to provide together what can be better provided together than separately.” 

So, is the UK “we the nations” or “we the people”, or even “we the places”? The idea of only doing together what we can’t do better alone is confederalism (a term that in Belgium is associated with separatism). But the Labour Party clearly thinks that most things are done better together, so all the talk further down the document is of solidarity, co-operation, and so on. This sounds very familiar to those of us involved in conversations about EU reform and, sure enough, recommendation 2 is for what in Brussels would be called subsidiarity – a legal duty that decisions should be taken as close as possible to those affected by them. 

The attempt to design around the England problem is also obvious in the proposals for new pan-UK co-ordinating mechanisms. At the top would be an Assembly of Nations and Regions, that would replace the House of Lords, and which would “ensure that the powers of the devolved administrations are always respected by central government”. This is not to be confused with the Council for the Nations and Regions, which would replace Joint Ministerial Committees, or the Council of England which would act as a talking shop for English local government, or the Council of the UK which would bring together the devolved administrations and the UK government, (but not the Council of England). Those familiar with Brussels may be feeling another tingle of recognition. 

Maybe the size of England makes all these co-ordination and collaboration bodies necessary, but other than the Council of England, which fills a gap, many of these bodies seem to be pointless if there are no arguments, and toothless if there are. Moreover, they add complexity to the UK level of government, which is only made worse by the fact that the report isn’t able to consider simplifying the structural mess of local government in England before empowering it. 

Today’s English local government arrangements look like an explosion in a think tank archive – bits and pieces of reforms lying around all over the place, relics of old initiatives, no-one quite sure what structures go where, and underneath the chaos, mostly buried, the 1974 Local Government structures of counties, districts and metropolitan authorities. 

The report’s remit explicitly excludes local government structural reform1, but without it, the devolution that is promised goes to vague structural coalitions – “bottom-up” but “with shared planning and cooperation”. This feels like a good way of creating lots of meetings for local government officers, but a bad way of creating predictable and simple institutions with which business and citizens can engage. 

There are good ideas in the local government sections of the report – a simpler structure for local funding, some (minimal and conditional) fiscal powers, and bringing the existing local economic partnerships into greater democratic control under local partnerships – but the promises of devolution and respect are less convincing for being delivered to the local level in general, rather than to specific bodies. 

Local empowerment is often set in the context of clusters of research and innovation, “helping innovators and entrepreneurs sow thousand of seeds … and releasing the energy of a new generation of startups and growing companies”.2 Although there is a faint whiff of 2005 in this – and in the phrase “double devolution” which comes up a few times – this is not in itself a bad thing. However, I think it is at least arguable that a cluster- and startup-based development model goes against the ideas of reducing inequality that are found elsewhere in the report. 

Take the Oxford-Cambridge Arc. It’s acknowledged in the report as a potential high growth area. Localism would suggest that if local authorities are happy to build into that growth potential, then both local communities and the country as a whole will benefit. But there is no guarantee that local voters will see it that way, and even if they do, not everywhere can be the OxCam Arc. By definition, clusters concentrate activity, and pages of positive language about British ingenuity can’t conceal the reality that most parts of the country will not be in high growth clusters. Research and innovation activity are likely to be less productive for not being part of European research structures, but here and elsewhere, Europe is mentioned only as a geographical expression. 

So where is the growth for the rest of the UK? I’ll leave aside the issue of moving civil servants out of London, which is unlikely to make much of a difference. There are positive noises about skills and scale-up funding outside London, which would help, but here, not for the first time, localism and central ambitions clash. A national but local industrial policy is promised. A British Regional Investment Bank will have regional in the name, but the centre guiding its remit. Fiscal devolution will be gradual and conditional. We can safely say the centre will be in control, at least for a while to come. 

As such, it is going to need to hold responsibility for the promises it makes. The report proposes the creation of a set of entrenched social rights – not a bad idea in itself, though the drafts in the report are too detailed – and says that they will apply to all public services. What does that mean for local authorities, already struggling to cover high need social services for those without resources to pay for themselves? Are they able to meet constitutional guarantees on housing provision? Guarantees that no person is left destitute? “Further detailed work would be needed” on mechanisms for legal challenge, says the report. If these rights are going to mean anything, citizens are going to have to be able to challenge on them – and local public services are going to need the resources and flexibility to deliver them. 

The proposals for devolution around skills, transport and economic regeneration are all interesting, and if all were used in a place it would have a stronger and more coherent set of powers around development. However, once again the structural lasagne comes in. Wokingham Borough, Richmond Yorkshire and Greater Manchester are all going to have different approaches and interests – not least in terms of their development ambitions.

It is assumed in the report that local people want a thriving and prosperous economy, with good local services – and I’m sure that is true in the abstract. However, as we know from the current row on housebuilding targets in Parliament, there is a risk that devolution fragments decision making and empowers oppositional minorities over broader groups. One way to turn up the volume on the quieter voices would be to use deliberative approaches that bring in citizen juries or assemblies. It’s therefore disappointing that the only nod to this possibility is a lukewarm reference to participatory budgeting and citizen deliberation near the end of the list of recommendations.

There are other recommendations here that I won’t treat in detail, around the civil service, MP second jobs and the ethical framework. Many of them are sensible reforms, but a selection of sensible reforms is something of a disappointment at a stage in the political cycle when we are probably at peak radicalism. 

I would have liked fewer kites, flown higher, in this report. As it is, there are good ideas in it, and a lot of good intentions. The UK will want to focus on innovation and high-growth industries, as will every other European country. Devolution is good, as long as it doesn’t create inequality. Where the report falls short is in setting out a clear, simple structure where citizens and businesses can involve themselves to make their community and their country work. As it stands, it looks like we’re getting a double helping of lasagne. 


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