Former Prime Minister calls for a citizens’ convention as a starting point for overhauling the governance of the UK. So why didn’t he bring this in when he was Chancellor or Prime Minister?
Some of you may remember G-Brown.
Actually, given the past few occupants of 10 Downing Street, Gordon Brown comes out as a more competent head of government than all of his successors in the decade that followed his departure from Downing Street. And I saw the shortcomings of his administration from inside Whitehall during my civil service days.
One of the main features of the New Labour Government was its tendencies to centralise. One former senior civil servant explained to me this was because Tony Blair saw local government as an absolute basket case, and saw the improvement of local government as something that would take far too long given the priorities he had and the state of public services at the time. The Blair-Brown response was to expand the Quango state – Quasi-autonomous Non-Government Organisations. These had been in the political media throughout the 1990s, with politicians and commentators alike complaining about the growth of these institutions, and how hard it was to scrutinise them. Recall this was before the days of the Freedom of Information Act – and before the internet.
Given how the first half of New Labour was more than well-known for its centralising, it makes for interesting reading why the former Prime Minister and ex-Chancellor has turned full circle on this. His article in The Guardian is here.
“So Mr Brown, what’s changed?”
The former Prime Minister’s article doesn’t go into the detail about the social and technological changes. Rather he looks at the jobs crisis facing our young people in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, and asks why the state’s institutions are unable to get to grips with the spread of the virus and the impact that the inevitable social restrictions are having on the economy and employment.
The calibre of MPs that Gordon Brown had in the Duckhouse Parliament was depressingly low. David Cameron used it as an opportunity to clear out his political deadwood – that generation of ageing knights in the Tory Shires who could be relied on to be voting lobby fodder in exchange for trinkets and baubles every so often. One of the reasons why critics of the current honours system believe it should be overhauled (myself included). The general election of 2010 dealt with many of the former Labour MPs, losing nearly 100 seats and ultimately control of government. (It’s worth noting that 100 Labour, 35 Conservatives, and 7 Liberal Democrats declined to re-stand for election).
Fast forward to the 2019 Parliament and again we have a very low calibre Parliament because Boris Johnson was about to outmanoeuvre his internal political opponents and get rid of many MPs who were not party loyalists. At the same time, those MPs that had switched to the Liberal Democrats from Labour and the Conservatives (following the abortive ChangeUK movement) were also removed from Parliament – a number standing in different constituencies that were Lib Dem target seats. Despite gaining over a million extra votes, the First Past The Post system meant that the party *lost* seats in this election. 11.5% of the vote, 1.7% of the seats. Until the voting system is overhauled – and I prefer what New Zealand and the London Assembly have (Mixed Member Proportional – explained here), such imbalances will remain. And the Conservatives have no party political incentive to change a system that for over a century has given Conservative governments even where they have not won the popular vote.
“I believe that the minute the immediate crisis is over, the UK needs to be rethought and rebooted – starting with a convention engaging all nations and regions and built out of local citizens’ assemblies to discuss how, through joint working and the sharing of power, we manage practical challenges like disease control, social care, regeneration and employment.”
He’s right – but I don’t think the present administration share his views. Not least because it would mean scrapping a whole host of policies that Johnson’s party paymasters are trying to drive through – such as the Planning White Paper, being led by the controversial Secretary of State for Housing who should have resigned over the Westferry scandal – recalling that as the man responsible for social and affordable housing, he was prepared to deprive a local authority of £millions to approve a scheme that would have benefited a party donor and former Newspaper owner.
Developing the citizens’ assemblies as a policy
A decade of austerity has gutted the old Department for Communities and Local Government – now known as the “Ministry of Housing & CLG”. It simply does not have the civil service capacity to organise something like this. So if a future Labour Government intends on running something similar, they need start working on not just the policy proposals, but on proposals to educate the public so that they can make meaningful and informed contributions.
Books, books, and more books – updated for the 21st Century
The post-WWII Pelican series is one that needs refreshing and updating. (That doesn’t mean books only – Ted Talks, podcasts, audiobooks, videos, blogposts – we have the new technology, let’s use it)
After all, they have the infrastructure in place to make it happen – have a look at what is already published here. One of the starting points for me is refreshing W Eric Jackson’s introduction to Local Government. (It’s cheap, it’s old, it’s worth buying!)
One other publication that’s worth looking at is this guide to public services by Cambridge City Council prior to the local government reorganisation of the 1960s.
The number of locally-provided services, especially in public health above, is incredible.
The importance of local histories
What we used to have is important to know when thinking about what we would like in the future. Not least because previous generations that had done the sort of thinking and debating that we will probably have to do anyway once Covid19 is through, will uncover good things long forgotten. That and/or it can remind us of what we already have and the previous generations that fought for them. That means involving local history societies. who may be able to publish content locally and even organise events to get people talking long before the public policy wheels start turning. For those of you in and around Cambridge, the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History is our local history society.