Friday, 27 February 2015

Devol u-turn? (Part 2)

In part 1 of this post I outlined some of the questions and doubts I’ve had lately about regional devolution. Below are the conclusions I have come to after giving these issues some more consideration
It’s true that if regional authorities are given tax raising powers similar to those that have been promised to the Scottish parliament then there is a risk of a fiscal and economic 'race to the bottom' – but in this globalised economy, competition to attract business and investment is inevitable anyway. With devolution, however, there could be a complementary 'race to the top' as, with the increase in local accountability and scrutiny that should accompany its implementation, regional politicians compete to be the best at using revenue as efficiently, and as beneficially to their electorate, as possible. And they would be aided in this by the possibility of emulating examples of best practice that would accrue from the diversity of approaches to governance that would proliferate under a system of regional devolution.
As for the matter of Conservative domination of the East of England region, hopefully any devolved regional assembly would be elected using a proportional system, as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This would go some way to reducing the extent of the Tories’ dominance. Also, the very fact of devolution itself would hopefully spark a greater level of local involvement in politics, both in terms of activism and of voting, which could have an unpredictable effect on the current political status quo in the region. Nevertheless it is still highly unlikely that any regional government for the East of England would be anything other than a Conservative government.
One possible counterbalance to this Conservative domination of the region could be the retention of an important role for central government in a devolved UK, in terms of guaranteeing a certain level of protection for vulnerable groups within society. The best solution, in my opinion, would be for central government to have the role of establishing overall policy in regard to such areas as the NHS, public investment, benefit levels etc, while the regional assemblies take responsibility for local implementation of those policies on the ground. This could be quite an effective system, helping to counter the effects of over-centralisation that have often been a problem in the past. In fact, many of the regions have deeply ingrained traditions of support for one or other of the main political parties although the UK electorate as a whole has, over the last 100 years or so, regularly replaced central government of one political stripe with that of another. It is, therefore, in the interests of democracy that central government retain its role as the main tier responsible for major areas of policy – the alternative would be the potential disenfranchisement of all those who, like myself, would find themselves stranded in political ‘enemy territory’.
After much consideration, then, I still believe that there are huge benefits that could be derived from the introduction of regional devolution in terms of enhancing democracy and bringing power closer to the people and that the potential disadvantages could be offset by putting in place the proper checks and balances – and in particular by the establishment of a system of proportional representation in the election of regional governments – to prevent the existing political demographics of England from holding back that potential increase in popular involvement and democratic empowerment.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Devol u-turn? (Part 1)

I have long been a supporter of regional devolution, but recently, particularly in light of the problems resulting from the government's austerity policies, I have been tempted to wonder whether regional devolution might perhaps turn out to be not such a great thing for the low paid, for vulnerable members of society or for public services. The reason for my concerns is related to the new powers that the government has offered to grant to the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament is to be given new tax raising powers, including the power to set income tax levels. If regional devolution in England is to be fair, and particularly if it is to address the real or perceived problems resulting from the 'West Lothian question', then similar powers would eventually need to be granted to the English regional authorities. But one possible concern is that this could result in a 'race to the bottom', as competition developed between regions to attract businesses and high wage earners. Businesses would be able to use the threat of relocation to force regional authorities to cut taxes to below optimum levels - and reduced taxes could mean that help for the low paid and funding for public services would suffer.
In short, I have been wondering if devolution isn't merely a case of offering people a bigger slice of a potentially much smaller pie. Wouldn't it be better to aim for unity and solidarity, rather than fragmentation, among those bodies that are charged with raising taxes and funding public goods?
Another concern is that, while I fully understand why the people of Scotland and Wales chose a greater level of self government rather than rule from London, as a council tenant in a low paid, public sector job, I'm not sure that I really want to find myself living in a self-governing, self-funding East of England region (I am assuming that the nine existing administrative regions of England would almost certainly be the structural basis for any level of regional devolution which takes place). Politically, this region is totally dominated by the Conservative Party, who currently hold 52 of the 59 seats represented in the Westminster parliament. As someone with centre-leftish political views, I can’t help the words ‘turkey’ and ‘Christmas’ popping into my head when I think about what regional devolution, which I support in principle, could mean for the region in which I live. My fear is that, under a Conservative dominated regional authority with powers similar to those of the Scottish government, policies such as increased private sector involvement in the NHS and the slashing of public sector budgets would proliferate and those who oppose them would have very little recourse at all. While I fully support the idea of regional devolution in principle it would seem that, for pragmatic reasons, regional devolution in my neck of the woods is not something I should be hoping for any time soon – any more than a Conservative supporter living in Scotland, whatever her views on Scotland’s relationship to the rest of the UK, would have been likely to welcome the prospect of an independent, SNP dominated Scotland.
These are some of the questions and doubts I've had lately about regional devolution. In part 2 of this post I will outline my conclusions about the issues I’ve raised.