Maybe everyone can have a Boris...by Ed Hall on 09/20/14
We already have one broken democratic system that leaves half our voters wondering why they vote, and a third not even bothering to vote at all. Whatever our response to the currently burning West Lothian Question, it surely cannot be a response that launches an entirely new layer of government that attracts even fewer votes, and even less support from you and me.
When I hear talk of Regional Assemblies for England, I despair. The overwhelming majority of English residents struggle to name a single local councillor, many constituents can't name their MP (often a majority), and even the people that work for local councils often can't name the leader of the council they work for.
Let's be crystal clear: we don't have an engaged electorate asking for more offices full of yet more officials and more automated telephone switchboards. We should run fast and scream loudly whenever we hear proposals that promise more of the same. Regional Assemblies will have floors of desks staffed by officials with ludicrous roles that make the Tax Payers Alliance cry, and could no doubt take on some of the responsibilities that local authorities have already chosen to share, like Parking Appeals Tribunals. This is a route to less democratic engagement, not more. What we need now are radical proposals, new approaches, and ideas that would energise and engage England, not bore it to death.
That leads me neatly to my proposal: to bring the English counties and cities back into the heart of our government. It is our cities that drive our economy, not Whitehall, and it is our counties that inspire cultural identity and sporting excellence. There is only one level of natural administrative order in England apart from Westminster, and it is one that the population understands: it is our cities and our counties. The identity is easy, the description is clear: I am from London, I grew up in Hertfordshire, and I went to school in Sussex. Nobody is, or ever will be, a North Easterner, and the people of that imaginary region made their views on that subject clear when given the chance. You can be Scottish, but you can't be East Anglia-ish.
But park that for a moment. We also have a major issue with the semi-reformed House of Lords. The idea that we can allow the new panic over post-Referendum English political reform to leapfrog the need to fix the outstanding dysfunction of the second chamber defies common sense analysis. And I think there is a way to deal with both, once and for all.
The cities and counties need stronger representation within our central government, and previous Westminster governments have tried to achieve that. But we have to acknowledge that local mayors and crime commissioners have had limited success. I think we could start to change that by basing a reformed House of Lords on the cities and counties, and devolving more powers to those existing local institutions.
In a post-Referendum world there are strong arguments and commitments to see more freedom for local government to raise or reduce taxation, and maybe move some centralised areas such as local NHS control to them as in Scotland. One of the few areas of local democracy that has engaged local voters has been health (I'm thinking of Wyre Forest), and so perhaps the provision of primary care, or emergency care should be a locally-managed, or at least locally regulated, function. But to allow local democracy to take on more genuinely life-and-death responsibility, we have to increase the profile of our cities and counties, and ensure that they become part of the day-to-day discussion of life on our streets.
And so to reform of the House of Lords. I would like to see a new chamber, perhaps with some appointees, but in which the overwhelming majority of members were elected to represent our cities and counties. They should I think, be elected for long, single terms, to ensure that they do not become Party apparatchiks, voting along whipped lines as they chase a political career. This new House of Lords should remain a revising chamber of grandees, but of people elected to represent the people of Manchester, or Wiltshire, or Cornwall.
If the cities and counties of England have more power to manage budgets, and to control the issues that actually affect their communities, and we have representatives of those cities and counties sitting at the very heart of government, then I think there is a chance that we could inject real energy back into our democratic system.
The risks of following a regionalised route are plentiful; people won't vote for a start, candidates will be selected because they sat quietly on the board of a regional LEP or other anonymous, invisible and preposterous body, and Westminster will have succeeded in ensuring Whitehall continues to control the purse-strings and dictate the over-arching policies and budgets that affect my rubbish collection, GP opening hours, and road gritting.
Make Lincolnshire, and Cumbria and Somerset real on the national stage. The dukes and earls that sat amongst their ermine-edged friends in the old House of Lords were exactly that - in some cases they practically owned the counties - but the appointment of thousands of retired MPs, trade unionists and party donors to the chamber has led us to where we are today. So let's turn the clock back in a sense, effectively electing the modern dukes and earls who speak for their electorate, rather than their own self-interest as was previously the case. Let's create a new power-base for the UK's counties and cities down the corridor from the House of Commons.
In the last few days I have heard senior Labour politicians trying to revive regionalism in a last gasp attempt to hold on to an English power-base. As a common-sense Conservative I don't want to see that happen, and we can't allow more faceless bureaucracy to give power to cadres of the party faithful. Inventing fantasy layers of government that don't exist naturally is the preserve of Soviet communism: it has no place here.
I think it is time to revive the English cities and counties, give them new and important voices in the heart of our political process, and we might have a chance to revive the idea that all local communities can truly elect leaders with a national voice - a sort of Boris for all.