From the dawn of democratic age, the economic fortunes of the British people have determined the political fortunes of those who govern us. Thus the rise of an organised urban proletariat coincided with the rise of socialism; while the transformation of that working class into a mass middle class went hand-in-hand with the renewal of conservatism.
If the foundations of the mass middle class are now crumbling, then this could be reflected in a third fundamental shift in our politics. And, indeed, this is precisely what we’re now living through.
Tellingly, it is those most directly disenfranchised by the decline of the mass middle class who are turning against the system – or, in the case of too many younger voters, turning their backs on conventional politics altogether.
Change the rules, not the players
However, these forms of protest are, in themselves, ineffective: If politics as usual goes on without you, then walking away is pointless. Nor will adding new players change the game if the rules stay the same.
Change needs to come from within – and the Conservative Party should be the champion of democratic reform. To the maximum possible extent we must devolve power away from Brussels, Whitehall and Westminster and toward individuals and communities. Furthermore we must ensure that the power that remains at the centre is used effectively, transparently and accountably.
Admittedly, all the main political parties have paid lip service to this agenda, but as soon as they’re given the chance to put it into action the backtracking begins and, at best, all that we get are half- measures. This is inexcusable. There are few things that governments can achieve through an act of will alone, but giving away their own powers is always one of them.
From now on, deeds not words must define the Conservative Party’s commitment to democratic reform.
Centralised power versus moral authority
This manifesto is about homes, jobs and savings: a practical agenda that might seem a world away from abstract concepts like localisation and empowerment. Previous attempts to interest people in these ideas – like the ‘Big Society’ – have all failed because ordinary voters couldn’t see the relevance to their everyday lives.
Indeed, there’s a danger that politicians will seek a mandate to grab even more power from individuals and communities. The justification will be that we can only get houses built, jobs created and debt squeezed-out if ministers have the ability to impose the necessary measures from the top down.
The centralisers are wrong – not because radical, and sometimes painful, change isn’t required, but because it only has a chance of being successfully implemented if it draws upon the invaluable resource of local knowledge and has the moral authority of democratic consent.
These things, much more than money, are what our over-centralised system of government lacks. To deliver on homes, jobs and other practical needs, we must return power to the people.
The old political model is to talk about a new political model and then do nothing about it.
We believe the precise opposite is required. The Conservative Party should focus its message on practical concerns like homes, jobs and savings, but then act rapidly to decentralise power as an essential contribution to the delivery of its promises.
From the moment it takes office, a new Conservative administration must be ready to implement a programme to reclaim power from the European Union and decentralise the British state – localising power at all levels: national, local, institutional and individual.
Devo max for all the home nations
The first step will be to complete the task of devolution. Irrespective of the result of the Scottish referendum on the 18 September 2014, it is clear that the existing relationship between Westminster and the four home nations cannot be sustained.
Domestic policy in each home nation should be decided in each home nation by the elected representatives of each home nation.
Therefore, we propose:
- Devolved national governments for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and (if it stays within the United Kingdom) Scotland – each with its own First Minister.
- The United Kingdom government would retain responsibility for the constitution, foreign affairs, defence, national security, monetary policy and some elements of fiscal policy – but responsibility for all other areas would be transferred to the devolved governments.
- The English government and First Minister would be chosen by the English MPs of the House of Commons who would sit as an English Parliament on given days of the week.
- The Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly would continue as at present, but with enhanced powers.
House of Lords reform
Devolution for all four home nations will both allow and require the rest of Britain’s unfinished constitutional business to be completed.The House of Lords is the most obvious example. In an age when those in authority need to learn the virtues of modesty and restraint, the upper house is now so bloated with appointees that it is only exceeded in size as a legislative body by the Chinese National People’s Congress. After years of botched reform and a number of scandals, their Lordships are in the last chance saloon.
Attempts to create an elected upper house have failed because no one can agree on how powers would be shared with the lower house. Making yet another attempt would mean more Westminster navel-gazing at a time when political reform should about localising power not squabbling at the centre.
However, that doesn’t mean we can leave things as they are. The House of Lords, which, as of July 2012, had more members over the age of 80 than under 60, simply doesn’t have the capacity required for the scrutiny of a modern legislative programme – despite having so many members.
Furthermore, with appointments under the exclusive control of the Westminster establishment, the upper house serves to perpetuate the power of the political class instead of acting as a check upon it.
Therefore, we propose:
- That the House of Lords should be greatly reduced in size allowing resources to be focused on supporting this smaller number of working peers.
- Life peers unable to commit to serving as working peers would lose their voting and attendance rights.
- The power of the Westminster establishment to create peerages should be sharply curtailed – thus, as well as the impact of a smaller, harder-working House of Lords, the Westminster party leaders should lose their monopoly over appointments.
- For a proportion of all new peerages, the choice should go, by lot, to an elected mayor (see below) – who would have the right to nominate suitably-qualified local heroes to positions.
The Lords’ public standing isn’t high, but it could scarcely be lower than that of the other chamber of Parliament. It is no exaggeration to speak of a crisis in the Commons. The 2010 intake of Conservative MPs was the most talented in recent years. But many voters hold the Commons in contempt and members of all parties are quitting. Why?
There is no single reason, but there is a clear result. MPs are increasingly viewed as members of a political class – separate and remote from the people they represent.
To recover its standing, the Commons must become a chamber of citizen legislators that holds government to account.
Therefore, we propose:
- That taxpayer support for MPs should gradually be scaled back – freeing them from being the legislative equivalent of welfare dependents.
- MPs should be free to earn from declared outside interests – increasing their independence from the whips and decreasing their dependence on the taxpayer.
- MPs, rather than the Government itself, should once again take control of the Commons’ business timetable.
- With the devolution of power and responsibility to elected Mayors and local councils (see below), MPs would spend less time sitting in the Commons, receive less public money and be more able to focus on national business – such as the NHS, immigration and national security.
MPs would also have the power to scrutinise and confirm (or reject) significant public appointments to unelected bodies – such as the Chairman of the BBC.
After more than a century of centralisation, the current Government has only just begun to turn the tide. Initiatives like the City Deals programme are pointing in the right direction, but they need to go even further and faster.
The concentration of political power in London has done particular harm to the cities of the Midland and North – and therefore to the British economy as a whole. Our hopes for prosperity in the 21st century depend on a return to the inspirational civic leadership that made Britain great in the 19th century.
The creation of a devolved English government, must go hand-in-hand with the devolution of power to local government and even further all the way down to independent community institutions.
Therefore, we propose:
- To widen and accelerate the process of localisation on the model successfully established by the City Deals programme – with a particular focus on powers over planning, skills, welfare- to-work and infrastructure investment.
- As explained in chapter 4, the decentralisation of power would be accompanied by a programme of fiscal decentralisation – giving communities a direct economic stake in locally- made decisions.
- Effective local leadership isn’t just hampered by the over-centralisation of power, but also because local government boundaries rarely correspond to functional economic areas: following the London model, elected city-wide mayors are an obvious solution that doesn’t require the redrawing of local government boundaries.
- Elected mayors would also provide the democratic legitimacy required for the ongoing devolution of power from Whitehall to city areas – what they wouldn’t do is suck power upwards from more local areas (though, as in London, they would fulfil the role of the Police and Crime Commissioners).
- Ongoing devolution of power to ‘greater city’ areas would be conditional on filling the democratic deficit with an elected mayoralty.
- The various English mayoralties would have a permanent base and representation in Whitehall – allowing them full and direct access to ministers in the English government.
Putting Sir Humphrey in his place
It is elected governments led by ministers that have a democratic mandate, not the civil service. As we’ve seen repeatedly since 2010, Whitehall’s bureaucrats are the agents of the status quo at a time when the overwhelming requirement is for renewal and reform.
To rebuild the foundation of the mass middle class – to create a new era of opportunity on homes, jobs and savings – we need joined-up government that faces no impediment. Ministers must be free to deal directly with one another without having to go through Whitehall’s departmental bureaucracy.
The civil service is there to provide a support structure for the elected government of the day not a set of dividing walls.
Therefore, we propose:
- T That Whitehall’s departmental structure should exist for administrative convenience only – the separate corporate identities of each department, their different logos, mission statements and all the rest of it must be permanently abolished.
- Whitehall’s domestic policy departments (re-constituted as an English government) will be organised along the lines of New Zealand’s ‘Beehive’ model of government – meaning that key ministers from across the administration sit and work together in the same physical space, not in separate departmental buildings.
- The heart of the new English government could thus be located in what is now the Treasury building – leaving what are now the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office to serve as the headquarters of the UK government.
- Instead of being held captive by officials foisted upon them by senior civil servants, ministers should be able appoint their own chiefs-of-staff, advisors and speech-writers from outside the civil service on time-limited contracts.
- Key functions like procurement and communications would be organised on a fully cross- departmental basis in order to eliminate the duplication and poor performance of the old departmental system. The new Government Digital Service provides a promising model.
Merely electing our MPs and councillors every four or five years and hoping for the best is not good enough. This is the age of mobile communications and the internet – a democratic process still stuck in the steam age is a national embarrassment.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that our Prime Minister was elected on a manifesto entitled an ‘Invitation to Join the Government of Britain.’ It is time to make good on that promise and introduce the reforms capable of turning the rhetoric of direct democracy into reality.
Therefore, we propose:
- A genuine right of recall (as opposed to the current proposals) – any elected councillor, mayor, MP or MEP should face a re-election if at least a fifth of his or her constituents sign a recall petition within a given period of time.
- David Cameron has already promised an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union if the Conservative Party wins a majority at the next election – this pledge must be extended to make the passing of a referendum bill a non-negotiable condition for Conservative participation in any coalition government too.
- A full package of devolution including English self-government, elected mayors and fiscal decentralisation (see above) would be a second non-negotiable condition.
- Electronic voting over the internet has already been successfully implemented in countries Estonia and Switzerland: in order to improve access to democracy and tackle the abuses of the postal voting system, work should begin immediately on bringing British democracy into the 21st century.
- An obvious application of internet voting is to lower the cost of referenda – which should be incorporated into national and local political decision-making.
- The use of local referenda in open primaries for the selection of party candidates has the advantage of giving voters a genuine choice in safe seats where one party dominates: it is not for the state to tell local party branches how to select their candidates, but if they choose to hold open primaries, the voting process for local elections should be made available to them.
- House of Commons Library, ‘UK election statistics: 1918-2012’, 7 August 2012, page 7, table 1a 95 House of Commons Library, ‘Membership of UK political parties’, 3 December 2012
- Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Telegraph, ’Meet Ukip, Britain’s most working-class party’, 27 January 2014; Guardian, ‘White face, blue collar, grey hair: the ‘left behind’ voters only Ukip understands’, 5 March 2014
- Sarah Birch et al, IPPR, ‘Divided democracy: Political inequality in the UK and why it matters’, November 2013, page 7
- BBC News, ‘Peers fight for space in crowded House’, 5 August 2014
- House of Commons Library, ‘House of Lords statistics’, 4 July 2012, page 4
- HM Government, GOV.UK, ‘Giving more power back to cities through City Deals’, 12 September 2013
- Greg Clark, ConservativeHome, ‘Who Bolckow and Vaughan were – and why we need successors for them today’, 19 June 2013
- Akash Paun and Josh Harris, Institute for Government, ‘Reforming civil service accountability: Lessons from New Zealand and Australia’, November 2012, page 13
- Saul Klein, The Guardian, ‘Government Digital Service: the best startup in Europe we can’t invest in’, 15 November 2013
- The Conservative Party, ‘Invitation to join the government of Britain: The Conservative Manifesto 2010’, April 2010
- Douglas Carswell and Zac Goldsmith, The Sun, ‘Time to give voters the right to sack bad MPs’, 13 April 2014 106 BBC News, ‘Estonia claims new e-voting first’, 1 March 2007
- Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, The Telegraph, ‘A new dawn for Parliament?’, 2 June 2013