Last Saturday, I attended a public debate with George Ferguson, Mayor of Bristol, and Stephen Williams, MP organised by Bristol for Democracy.
I’ve followed with interest the changing set-up of governance of Bristol and its relationship to how actually empowered and involved citizens of Bristol are, and there are many aspects of the debate I find fascinating. On Saturday, I was struck by how warm and genuinely meant the sentiments were about dispersal of power, yet how much the actual words and arguments were centralist at heart.
George Ferguson wants to ‘devolve as much power as is sensible and non-strategic to local areas’. Stephen Williams wants to ‘take power from people like me and give it to people like him [George]’.
Yet actually articulated in the room, we had a far stronger calls for centralisation. Here’s a selection:
- That strong elected leaders are needed to push through things that people don’t like (in Bristol, controlled parking zones).
- That anything ‘strategic’ needs to be kept at a higher level (obvious if you think in terms of centralisation, and the notion of lateral strategic coordination is futile).
- That, actually, we don’t want to take tough decisions ourselves, we’d rather let the big bad ruler take the risk and the blame, we need personalities to outsource our responsibilities to.
- That we cannot risk ‘benefits tourism’ or have locally distinct policies that really impact on quality of life because then, god forbid, people will want to move here.
And all the way through, the speakers sat too contentedly in the paternalist mindset of downward delegation – that the centre grant localities power when it is non-strategic and they demonstrate that they are responsible – rather than on upward delegation – that people temporarily granted power to coordinating bodies when they demonstrate they need it. In the absence of a written constitution (an absence identified by the speakers and blamed for a lot of confusion over roles), the centre should serve at the whim of the local, not the other way around.
It wasn’t all as centralist. There were calls for some specific rebalancing: some in the straightforward arena of money: the level of tax Bristol should keep,and its ability to borrow money against its housing stock. The cynical cap on council tax increases George talked about I find a particularly disgusting over-centralism. We want to and would pay to keep services: yet this government will not let us without vast cost and process. Though surely the government would count the cost of living as a ‘strategic’ issue to keep control of?
Then there was the practical and tactical appeal: There was agreement in principle with the bedroom tax but they wanted to be able to control how it was implemented. Maybe, just maybe, a local organisation is better than a Whitehall department when it comes to shaping a particular policy for its area. However – and maybe I am listening with too cynical an ear – it is a small kind of localism that says we can deliver the centre’s policies more effectively if they would only let us, and is happy with the government telling us who to let live in what houses at what rates.
The strongest indignation came from George: it is intolerable to have to beg the government on an issue of regional logistics. A local city region is the right level to make strategic decisions about transport in the region, not Whitehall. But wait: it needs to include the surrounding authorities, and they aren’t playing ball. So perhaps we need government after all, at least to impose regional centralism (sorry, coordination) in the form of an ITA?
The arguments, assumptions and practises accompanying centralised systems were far more present than those encouraging devolved responsibilities. Cooperation was assumed too tricky, self-interest too strong. The job of councillors is to focus on their wards and not try to work together or influence city policy (that would just be ‘political point-scoring’). Involving people (except via ‘letting them ask questions regularly’) is too expensive: responsibility needs to rest with single individuals and government needs to protect people from self-interested local politics. Nothing specific at all was mentioned as a contender for devolution to neighbourhood level, and I gather that progress on developing the powers of neighbourhood partnerships has ground to a halt under George. It is surprising how many powers end up being ‘strategic’.
That this mayor has a rainbow(ish) cabinet, proactive public engagement and has seemed to open up involvement and discussion in the city is personality, not structure. It’s good. But it is absolutely not devolving power.
Perhaps I’ll conclude by highlighting the case of whether Bristol could choose to elect its councillors by PR.
Stephen Williams’ response was a natural no: firstly, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, a self-interested party or Mayor could redesign elections to suit them. Secondly, if you give it to the public – say, in a referendum – the best-funded campaign will win. So the government will have to set out the rules. Empowerment falls at the first hurdle: we can’t find a way of giving the power to decide how they are governed, with appropriate safeguards and concerns, to the actual collective of individuals being governed. They must be guided and protected from maladjusted local power-grabbers by a wise state.
Sorry, Stephen: I’m not taking this. Of course we could decide how we ran our elections and how we chose who to govern us. Of course we could design a system that was secure, had locks and safeguards, and protected against future. But that would present a vision of an organised, competent, self-determined city that is too far outside the mindset of our over-centralised existence. It would perhaps require a level of coordination, collaboration and self-organisation that as a city we do not yet understand quite how to activate. Progress to a more participative democracy – that is my bent, if you haven’t yet guessed – means designing the kind of city that can choose how it is governed.
We got a promise from George to ask government to allow Bristol to elect its councillors by PR. We got Stephen supporting the notion in theory, and wondering whether local electoral reform might make it into manifestos. Perhaps we don’t need to wait for government to see whether it wants to let us. Perhaps we should activate the city and draw up a written constitution for Bristol?
As an aside, I can’t let these arguments – both from our Mayor – go without challenge:
- ‘Well, it worked, didn’t it?’ George said academies have rescued failing schools. Many things might have worked: democracy is about our participation in choosing what to try, why and how it affects other aspects of life.
- ‘Don’t like it? Well, you haven’t listened to the silent majority, and they’re happy with it.’ The best arguments contain enough truth: you can use this line to overrule criticism of anything that more than 50% of the population are apathetic about. Isn’t participative democracy about empowering those who do care to influence, and design, within the often very broad boundaries of what the silent majority accepts?