Editorial: Devolution and democracy

Guest editor Rachel Laurence introduces our special focus on devolution
February 2016

‘Devolution is the only game in town.’ We hear this regularly from community activists, local government officials, small businesses, practitioners and policy makers alike. There’s often a tacit acknowledgement that it is a political device that could go either way. But there is no doubt that it has captured imaginations from the ‘centre’ to the ‘periphery’ of the political and economic spectrum. Spearheaded by the Northern Powerhouse initiative in Manchester, ‘devolution deals’ are now being negotiated countrywide, backed by new legislation going through parliament.

So is devolution an inherently better, more democratic approach? Or could it be a regressive, slippery slope towards decoupling the interests of richer areas from poorer ones? Does it offer greater control for people over their regional economic destinies? Or is it an opportunity for the neoliberal paradigm to be more firmly embedded into local government policy?

The New Economics Foundation is a ‘think and do tank’ that aims to ensure that the economy puts people and the planet first. Our guest-edited section of this issue picks out some of the many facets of this debate that bear deep scrutiny by all those interested in a progressive new economy.

Craig Berry, from Sheffield University’s Political Economy Research Institute, and Jonathan Davies, of De Montfort University’s Centre for Urban Research on Austerity, argue that devolution as currently pursued is tied to a set of conditions that impose a neoliberal policy ‘straitjacket’. Far from generating opportunities for greater local autonomy and innovation, this entrenches dominant approaches to policy making. Nevertheless, Berry identifies a window of opportunity for progressives to reshape localism on different terms. Drawing on lessons from the shortcomings of experiments in municipal socialism, Davies argues that successful progressive decentralisation will depend on creating a positive relationship between institutions from local to universal scale.

Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society argues that ‘it’s time to let the people in’, and reflects on the potential of ‘citizen assemblies’ to facilitate participation. Isobel Lindsay, a key figure in the ‘Yes’ campaign for Scottish independence, reflects on the lessons from their extraordinary success in engaging ordinary citizens in detailed political and economic debate.

Devolution may or may not be the only game in town. But it certainly constitutes a hugely important moment in UK politics. If we are serious about a systemic shift in our economic and democratic system, now is the time to engage head on with the ‘devolution’ agenda. NEF is delighted to have had the opportunity to begin doing so in this special issue of Red Pepper.

Thanks to Adrian Bua for his editorial assistance

Will Podmore 3 March 2016, 09.38

Devolution is divisive. It would indeed split the interests of richer areas from poorer ones. It is a government policy designed to embed the neoliberal paradigm ever more firmly into local government policy. Government policy is divide and rule. We should unite and liberate.

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