Getting the reshaping of the state centre-stage

John Harris of the Guardian began the week with a piece on the reshaping of the state which is packed with observations that many Liberal Democrats have taken as read for decades. Harris’s view on the set-piece stand-off between Andy Burnham and central Government was of “things that had long been kept on the political margins suddenly bursting into the foreground.” Those of us who have long histories of inhabiting political margins will recognise “things” as constitutional reform and a need for a massive shift of power within a dysfunctional hopelessly over-centralised British state. And power shifting is at the heart of what we are about. As I have said before on this site, Labour tend to prioritise moving money and Liberals tend to give priority to shifting power. Yes, they are related and partially overlapping, but basic instincts are important!

In his plea for alternative ways of running the state Harris notes that the Tories want to shake up the British state “but in a way that will leave its chronic power imbalances unchanged.” In a crucial sentence he also claims “Labour also has longstanding centralising instincts that always make conversation about redistributing power far too difficult, when the outlines of a different system actually seem pretty straightforward.”

For far too long local authorities have survived on funny money, ad-hoc grants and even competitive bidding (begging?), rather than sensible, stable fund-raising powers. You can have extra money for your region (normally a sub-region actually) if you vote in an elected Mayor. We used to call this bribery. Most Lib Dems have issues with the mayoral model favoured by the Government and want a healthy subsidiarity as power and resources are shifted to appropriate democratic institutions where people affected by decisions have a direct connection with regional or local decision-makers.

Constitutional reform (including electoral reform) is often seen as too complicated to sell in election campaigns unless you are a Nationalist aiming for independence. We need to put energy in finding appropriate language for a party that is not about shrinking the state or expanding the state but about the dispersal of the state. As we go into a post-Brexit decline it could well become easier to demonstrate how more successful countries such as Germany do devolution.

Harris suggests taking out of central control health and social care, education, housing and transport plus most of the activity off the Department of Work and Pensions. I think he sees most of such tax-raising powers going to the Mayors but we have to do better that.

However I have no problem with his final comment “Such is the key lesson of the first phase of this crisis : that power and responsibility have to be radically relocated before our age of failure and rupture finally breaks the system for good.”

This is our territory – occupy it!

* Geoff Reid is a Bradford City Councillor and a retired Methodist Minister.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Tony Greaves 26th Oct '20 - 8:11pm

    A lot of good sense in this article. John Harris is one of the few journalists on national (ie London based) newspapers who gets out and about the country, and not least the terra incognita north of Watford (or is it Watford Gap?)

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