Ending England’s democratic deficit

By: Michela Palese

In our ever changing political and constitutional landscape, England has remained an often-forgotten anomaly. In the past two decades, constitutional reforms have seen Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all gain significant autonomous decision-making powers over a wide variety of areas and shift away from the British political tradition of centralisation, power-hoarding and Westminster dominance.

Events in recent years have tested the resilience of our constitutional structures across the UK – from the legislative challenges following the UK’s exit from the European Union, resulting in the Sewel convention being breached twice (in relation to the EU (Withdrawal) Act and the UK Internal Market Act); to the response to the coronavirus pandemic which saw tensions arising between an increasingly Anglo-centric, muscular UK government in Westminster and the devolved governments, which were free to deviate – at times significantly – from Whitehall’s approach to tackling the pandemic.

The situation in England is remarkably different. Constitutional observers like to say that England is ‘the gaping hole in the devolution settlement’ and to remind us that it is one of the most over-centralised countries in Europe. Sadly, they are right. While the centres of power in the rest of the UK have shifted away from Westminster over the last two decades, in England, the centre continues to hold all the cards. Attempts have been made to address England’s economic inequalities, most recently as part of the government’s levelling up agenda, but little has been done to tackle England’s democratic deficit.

Devolution has often been an afterthought in England – England continues to be governed primarily from Westminster, with localities having very little autonomy to effect change at the local level and communities having very little say over how they are governed.

Where some form of devolution has occurred, as with the ‘devo deals’ of the 2010s, this process has been led by the centre and driven by a need for efficiency and value for money – top-down reforms that have done little to genuinely empower local government and create a healthy democracy at the sub-national level.

These issues were vividly illustrated during the covid-19 pandemic, where the ability of communities in England to respond to the pandemic was hindered by Westminster’s ‘command and control’ approach. 

But the covid-19 crisis also highlighted how the current settlement in England is no longer sustainable and how it might work better – exposing the inherent weaknesses in the ‘Westminster-knows-best’ approach and demonstrating the extent to which local government plays a key role in our democratic system and can help change our politics for the better.

In our new report, Democracy Made in England, we call for a new approach to local government that would allow areas to have genuine devolution, ending the democratic deficit that has plagued England for so long.

Local government urgently needs to be democratised and reconnected to people and communities – there should be a shift away from the mere decentralisation and delegation of some tasks and responsibilities towards genuine devolution. Where existing approaches have focused on economic factors and efficiency, a new approach should be focused on democracy and empowerment.

The economic and technocratic rationales that have guided devolution policies so far should be replaced in favour of new principles and values underpinning devolution, which respect and enhance the democratic importance of local government. Subsidiarity, democratic legitimacy, and equality between different layers of government should be at the heart of any approach to devolution.

Local government should be genuinely empowered – powers, resources and capacity should be transferred away from Whitehall down into local communities. Crucially, this should also include funding and spending powers.

Place and people’s affinity with their local area should be valued and should be reflected in the structures available to English local government. Citizens should be engaged to ensure that any proposals for reform are built up from the local level and have the necessary support and legitimacy to make them work. Solutions should no longer be imposed top down.

But as well as radically overhauling our approach to devolution, we also need to shift the balance of power between the local and the national, and radically reform democracy in England.

The government should establish a clear framework for devolving power to local authorities – one that makes devolution the default position and is centred on a presumption in favour of democracy and local self-determination.

The undemocratic anomaly which means that England, outside London, continues to be the only part of the UK which does not use a fair voting system for any of its elections should be addressed. Proportional representation for local elections, as used in Scotland and Northern Ireland, would help reinvigorate democracy at the local level, ending the proliferation of one-party states and single-party domination of council chambers, and opening up councils to a diversity of voices.

And those voices must have a place in Westminster too – local areas should be represented in the national arena and empowered to coordinate and work together with one another. An elected second chamber which allows for the fair and equal representation of the UK’s nations, regions and localities could play a crucial role in improving central-local relations.

The issue of levelling up and tackling inequality in England is not going away any time soon, especially given developments in all parts of the UK around the future of the Union.

The government’s recently published levelling up white paper is a welcome intervention in this space, promising to deepen and widen devolution in England, including outside the large metropolitan areas which to date have been the main recipients of additional powers and resources.

The task now must be to ensure that democracy, representation, and place are at the heart of its implementation and of any future discussions around the place and role of English local government.

It is time for England to rediscover genuine local self-government – we need political leadership and commitment to deliver true democracy for England.

Michela Palese is Research and Policy Officer at the Electoral Reform Society. The report ‘Democracy Made in England: Where Next for English Local Government?’ can be found here.

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.