Opinion: Federation is necessary

I think we Lib Dems can all be happy about the turnout in the referendum, and the result it gave us. It truly showed that if you give people the democratic opportunity to have a voice, they will seize it. While that very specific question is answered there are many more that remain.

While it’s early days yet, all it seems we’ve been offered by Cameron is English votes on English issues within the present structure. At the risk of being cynical, the simple barring of non-English MPs seems to serve to retain FPTP in a legislature that will serve both the union and England. It would lend the Tories a permanent electoral advantage in the English sub-section of Westminister. One must also consider the impracticality of operating a Parliament within a Parliament, and particularly sharing an executive. How can (assuming the vast majority of issues are now devolved) a government that exists because of a majority in the union Parliament decide the ministerial positions that exercise power only over England? This is not an acceptable option.

It’s therefore the case that federation is necessary, be that in Regional Assemblies, or as polling would suggest is much more popular, an English Parliament. Along with it an executive. This must have real power, comparable to what will soon be offered to Scotland, NI and Wales, and not the sort of rump that was offered by John Prescott. This will inevitably be attacked (and already has been by Hague) as another layer of bureaucracy and politicians. However these new positions can in part be made up for by the massive reduction such a body would allow in the size of the union Parliament and government. This new system also needs to have built into it a more even distribution of money. Polling has shown the momentous disparities in the government funding per capita between Yorkshire, Wales, London, Scotland and indeed all of our regions will simply no longer be accepted by voters. This change accompanied by tax raising powers would give voters the chance to chose closer to them whether and what additional funding is required within a fairer structure.

We must also focus on enhancing power on the level below that, not only giving local authorities more power, but also reforming them to enhance transparency and accountability. The many shameful scandals that have engulfed various local authorities across the country has made an unchanged local governance system unacceptable to the majority of the public. Nick Clegg’s indicated he is already in favour of change, and the replacement of PCCs is one measure to achieve this.

These changes should be offered as part of a comprehensive package of constitutional reform including an elected House of Lords and a fair voting system. A few years ago these proposals, our heart, looked dead. The Scottish referendum has given us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape our constitution. To make the greatest constitutional changes since the People’s Budget and the Parliament Acts.

Scotland’s referendum has opened up a debate. We cannot waste the enthusiasm that’s been established. It’s up to us to secure a mandate and the consent of the people of the UK for a Liberal package of constitutional reform. To unlock the people’s voice.

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9 Comments

  • Although you say that an English Parliament is more popular than English Assemblies – I doubt this would be the case if the English Regions along with Wales were given the same powers that are eventually given to Scotland – and called parliaments.

    This would not require another level of government. Each constituency would select their own MP – and these MPs would either represent their constituency in Westminster – when national issues were discussed and in their regional parliament – when regional issues were discussed.

    Just a matter of creating a relatively simple timetable for when the parliaments sat.

  • David Evershed 19th Sep '14 - 12:27pm

    When considering the devolution of powers, the starting point is surely which powers should be returned from the EU to the national level. The Lib Dems localism policy has meant Lib Dems naturally support the subsidiarity policy in the EU and powers being devolved to the lowest possible level.

    However, Lib Dems unequivical support for the status quo in the EU is contrary to its localism, subsidiarity and Power to the People policy.

    Lib Dems need a rational policy position which is consistent at EU; UK; E,W,S and NI; and local government levels.

  • Ironically, proper federation may have been more likely with an independent Scotland…

  • @David – “When considering the devolution of powers, the starting point is surely which powers should be returned from the EU to the national level. ”

    I’m not so sure that is a good starting point. I would tend to start from the point of asking what powers should be held more locally, specifically at the country level, this will very quickly uncover if there are powers that have been transferred to the EU that should more appropriately be held at the local level. I would also separate out and steer away from clouding the whole issue by delving into the English region/county delegation of powers. What this would do is built upon and harness the existing experience of Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland, plus Scotland’s desire for greater devolution.

  • With respect to Westminster, we have a real conundrum: Currently the devolved regions separately elects members to their assembly and to Westminster, whereas currently England votes once for MP’s who effectively perform both roles. I suspect that once we determine what can and should be performed by the devolved assembles, we will have identified the rump of work that should fall to a UK wide administration – which may also identify powers that should be repatriated from the EU (and also identify powers that could go to the EU…). Having done this we will be in a better position to determine the nature of reform necessary at Westminster.

    There is a very real danger in jumping up and down at the present time and getting all excited about House of Lords reform and voting reform, which are really just tinkering with the current system, that the main driver for constitutional reform (devolution away from the centre) gets diluted and lost.

  • @John. With regards to whether to go with devolved Parliaments for England or the regions, that is I think ultimately a choice to be made by the people. I’d support either so long as they both get a large amount of power.

    But I think your proposal for having the MPs be dual role does the people a democratic disservice, which increases with the more power you devolve. You only need look at the massive difference between how people in Scotland vote in general elections and Scottish elections to see that people do chose different people and parties for different levels of government based on policies appropriate for that level of government. I also don’t see how you can have region assemblies that are equivalent in standing to the Welsh, NI and Scottish ones when they are derived directly from the union Parliament, a role MPs will inevitably focus on. Related to this there’s the issue that come election time the media and politicians will likely focus for the most part on the national issues. The debate regarding local decision making powers that such assemblies are supposed to allow would be drowned out by that.

  • John Roffey 19th Sep '14 - 5:12pm

    @ Mike

    I think you have demonstrated why it is important for MPs to be less responsible to their party leaders and more responsible to their constituents. The ‘Westminster Bubble’ is only possible because MPs are little more than ‘lobby fodder’ to their party leader, particularly in very safe seats.

    If an effective recall system were in operation – the MP could [and would be obliged to] act in the best interests of their constituents whether in a regional or national parliament. Generally this should operate in favour of the Party as its MPs are usually viewed as ‘constituent friendly’ – apart from producing a far more healthy democracy.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '14 - 7:22pm

    John Roffey

    I think you have demonstrated why it is important for MPs to be less responsible to their party leaders and more responsible to their constituents. The ‘Westminster Bubble’ is only possible because MPs are little more than ‘lobby fodder’ to their party leader, particularly in very safe seats

    Yes, but if we had AV then it would make it much easier for a complacent MP to be challenged by an independent who was sympathetic to the general political stance of the safe seat. People could feel safe to vote for the challenger, with the 2nd preference for the restanding MP if the challenge failed, without the fear we have under the current FPTP system of “splitting the vote” and so “letting in” the candidate of the less popular mainstream party.

    AV is not proportional representation, so it does not solve the issue of minority opinions going without representation. But it DOES give and effective challenge to the “safe seat” syndrome. And the people of this country voted against it, by two to one.

  • John Roffey 19th Sep '14 - 8:19pm

    @ Matthew Huntbach

    Although it is a consistent view expressed by Party members that voters ‘fear[ we have] under the current FPTP system of “splitting the vote” and so “letting in” the candidate of the less popular mainstream party’ – I don’t really believe that the vast majority take that view when voting – and the rejection of AV might be considered proof of this.

    Even if AV had been adopted – it would not prevent a rogue government, like the Coalition, changing the face of the nation without any mandate to do so. That is why I am so much in favour of a strong Recall bill that does give the voters a chance to recall their MP if s/he is consistently supporting measures against the wishes of the constitution they purport to represent.

    Having to wait 5 years to kick out a rogue administration before another can be elected – that might be equally as unprincipled – seems no solution at all.

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