John Prescott gave devolution in Northern England a shot in 2003, pushing for regional assemblies. But in a referendum the North-East utterly rejected his plan. People there were perhaps thinking along the lines of John Major’s dictum that, "If the answer is more politicians, you are asking the wrong question".
It doesn’t help that the public’s experience of local politics can be even worse than the national soap opera. Some councillors treat their position as an audition for a Westminster job, and are generally much more likely to vote with party loyalties in mind than MPs, who at least sum up the courage for rebellion now and then. This means the media and the public treat local elections as little more than a nationwide opinion poll on the parties in Westminster. This top-heavy structure is bad at producing policy adapted to local needs, but the answer is certainly not more layers of government. We need a more radical solution.
This is where direct democracy comes in. It has barely reached Britain yet, but we’ve seen it work in Switzerland and many US states. It means devolving power not to new governing bodies, but to the people themselves; the public get to vote on individual issues and laws.
Referendums up until now in Britain have had to be triggered by Parliament, so the Government can pick and choose when to hold one. But a popular referendum mechanism would allow a petition of citizens to demand a ballot on any law passed by Parliament, giving the people the final say on it. I suggest we borrow the mechanism used in California, since it’s the most populous American state but still manages to get several measures on referendum ballots. A petition of five per cent of votes cast at the last General Election would be necessary to challenge parliamentary legislation, a large but hardly insurmountable number judging by the popularity of petitions on the 10 Downing Street website.
Take ID card legislation. Consistently touted by the Civil Service and whoever happens to be Home Secretary as the answer to everything from benefit fraud to international terrorism, ID cards and their associated national database are increasingly understood by the public to be another case of the bureaucracy expanding to meet the needs of an expanding bureaucracy. This makes them a potential candidate for the people’s veto.
Similarly, there is no reason new legislation has to be drawn up behind closed doors in Whitehall. An initiative process allows individual citizens or groups to draw up new laws and, with a large enough petition, put them to the people on a referendum ballot, whether Parliament likes the idea or not.
Politicians are welcome to debate the merits of citizen-led legislation and offer their own expertise in drawing it up but
the final decision would lie with the people rather than the ruling party whip. And while elected MPs can do a U-turn
on a sixpence, initiatives always do what they say on the ballot paper.
When introduced last century in the US, initiatives were instrumental in introducing the women’s vote and the directly elected US Senate. Compare that with our still unelected House of Lords. Some US states also introduced the recall, a petition mechanism for removing politicians and forcing a by-election when they have lost the support of the people. That could help keep constituency MPs on their toes.
These procedures could be particularly usefully combined with a fresh commitment to local government. It is an unfortunate irony that Government strategies for introducing localism have so far involved drawing up plans centrally, before wrapping them up in one package which local people can only take or leave.
Essentially, the Government is saying that people can have reform but only the reform the Government likes, or they get nothing. Occasionally this has produced some reasonable results. Several non-party candidates have become directly elected mayors, for example, which would be impossible under more traditional systems. But more often, it’s a recipe
for devolving discussion without power.
US-style home-rule shows us the alternative. Local citizens suggest preferred local government structures, including what executive and representative offices there are, how they are selected or elected, then vote on their introduction.
The winning structure is enshrined in a charter, a local constitution. It can be amended or reformed, but only with the people’s permission or initiative. This would represent a citizen trump card to play when party hierarchies get entrenched.
Nick Cowen is the author of In Total Recall: how direct democracy can improve Britain, a report by think tank Civitas