For a Party with a proud tradition of concern for constitutional reform I find that we are surprisingly bad at thinking about structure of government issues. I am not sure why this should be so. It may be because discussions about local and regional government structures tend be dry and somewhat nerdy (although that hasn't stopped with other subjects!). It is not something that will get most people's pulses racing. People just don't tend to care about these issues very much.
Does that matter? Well yes I think it does. The argument we make for devolution and local government is that decisions that effect peoples lives should be made as close to those effected as possible. We also argue, and this is something that is coming out very strongly in the current debate within the party about public services, that these are better delivered if they are held democratically accountable at the local level. So government structures will impact on things that effect you.
So if this is the case why don't people care? I believe that it is largely because the way the debate is usually framed fails to help people see the connection between the issue and their own lives. Those who argue for change tend to present their arguments in overly rational, indeed technocratic, terms and fail to engage, or even attempt to engage, peoples emotions.
Questions of who governs us, where they govern us from, and over what areas their writ should run overlap with equally important questions of personal and community identity. Politicians who fail to recognise these issues of identity, which have the roots in emotional rather than rational factors, indeed they can often be highly irrational, will find their plans for introducing regional government or changing the boundaries of local authorities can easily run into the buffers. Our agenda to reinvigorate local government and introduce functioning regionalism into British politics will come to nothing if we fail to engage with peoples hearts as well as their heads.
I believe there is a real important difference between 'community engagement' and civic pride. The latter, to use an important word, is authentic in a way that the former is not. Authenticity is critical in this, as in most other parts of politics, and leads me to what is for me the bottom line in campaigning for devolution, regionalism and enhanced local democracy. Our starting point should always be to talk about real places.
When the Tories on Bedfordshire County Council were promoting their, ultimately unsuccessful, bid for unitary status they erected signs on the border between their area and the area covered by Luton's existing unitary council saying “Welcome to Bedfordshire”. This annoyed me and I wouldn't be surprised if it annoyed a number of other people. As far as I can tell Luton hasn't moved anywhere! It was, is, and will remain part of the historic County of Bedfordshire. This will be the case whatever local government structures and boundaries we have. What the politicians on the County Council had fallen into the trap of doing was confusing the lines of administrative boundaries with what people recognise as real places.
I believe that as a general principle we should, as far as possible, try to align government structures with what people recognise as the places that they inhabit. It is wrong and wrong-headed to try to use artificial constructs to govern real places.
But in doing this we also have to recognise that places are not static. They can change and develop. Villages can grow into towns. Neighbourhoods can decline and shrink. Separate communities can merge into single conurbations. The character and nature of places can change. We have to accept this an build it into our proposals for reform.
This is especially important if we want to resurrect our plans for regional government. Developing effective government structures at a regional or sub-regional level should be seen much more as an organic process. We need to develop an approach that allows us to evolve towards regional government, in line with real places, rather than having it imposed from above. We need to work towards regional government from the bottom up.
This also involves thinking about the ways we enable local government structures and boundaries to change. We should learn the lessons from the disastrous way that the Government have gone about their plans for developing new unitary authorities. In the UK we don't seem to be able to manage this kind of change very well. So a useful exercise would be for the Party to think about what processes we need to have for managing changes to local government structures and boundaries.
The 'English question'
We in England also need to be reminded that there are now nationalists in government in both Scotland and Wales. This whole area of debate needs to take account of the context of the Union. I am frustrated that the Liberal Democrats have failed to develop a coherent answer to the “English question”. The question of how to reform the governance of England in response to devolution elsewhere is something that we haven't been able to get a proper grip on.
At the special manifesto conference in January a sat through the fringe session asking the question “National, local or regional – Does it matter?” with mounting frustration. This was for a number of reasons. First, the two members of the platform panel who were asked to speak both argued from a similar 'northern' perspective, one from the North East the other from the North West. The issue of regional government looks different in the South of England and a more balanced panel would have been nice. Second, the comments and discussion from the floor missed out mentioning a whole range of important issues let alone suggesting a way forward on some of them. Third, I wasn't called to make a contribution!
But mainly I was frustrated because, in a room full of Liberal Democrats with, one presumes, an interest in policy discussing structures of government for more than an hour not a single person used the word federal.
Maybe this is an problem with the English. Jim Wallace in a recent column in Liberal Democrat News made the point that:
“however dormant the 'English question' may go from time to time, it won't go away. That is why the Liberal Democrat proposal for federalism within the United Kingdom is the way forward for those who value the United Kingdom, but believe that power has to be decentralised wherever possible.”I find it very odd that the Liberal Democrats as the only party in the UK with an explicit commitment to federalism we find it so difficult to set the agenda on this issue. Too often it is the Tories nationally who are making the running on this issue and not in the right direction. The development of federal United Kingdom is the answer to the “English question”– so why are we not talking about it?
Why can't Liberal Democrats use the f-word?