Last night, as Scotland decided to stay in the union, Brixton voted for independence (or was it independents). OK, so it was a self selected group celebrating the 5th Birthday of the Brixton Pound (and its iconic design) but the vote was decisive – 80% voted yes to 20% no.
Does this have any relevance? Well we’re not going to storm the Town Hall anytime soon but I think it has lessons for the debate that is just starting about our constitutional settlement.
Cameron et al have realised there is a problem with power. But they are looking at the wrong problem and have the wrong answer. Scotland’s Yes campaign was motivated by anger at an elite, centralised state. They managed to create political passion for something that we also feel in England – just go to Plymouth or Newcastle and ask people there how they feel about Westminster
The problem is not that Scottish MPs vote on English legislation – the apparently critical West Lothian question. The problem is the power and decisions reside in Parliament at all.
An English Parliament is irrelevant. So we solve the West Lothian question. Who, apart from a few Tory back-benchers, really cares? Power is still exercised by a London elite.
But this is a diverse nation of places and people who are ready to determine their own future and actually think they can do a far better job.
Power must move closer to people. But power can only be properly exercised in ways that feel legitimate and relevant. Identity matters. Political leadership matters. Together they create legitimacy to make decisions that affect people’s lives. Leadership should be of place by people who can genuinely represent that place.
So how does that play out?
Lets look at it from the bottom up. I was in Sandwell yesterday (no I didn’t know where it was either – but it includes West Bromwich). I asked the receptionist where she’s from – without hesitation she said Tipton (her town and my equivalentof Brixton), then Black Country, then Birmingham. No Sandwell (just as I would never say I come from Lambeth. I am passionate about two places I live – Brixton and London. London has a leader (I might not totally like him, but he’s Mayor of London and I love that we have a Mayor).
Hand power to the regions on health and strategic economic development but push everything else down. Councils will have to collaborate and that’s not always easy. Places have got decisions to make and squabbles to sort out, but if there’s a deal on the table they will get their act together. The Black Country is operating as a sub region and they will join a Birmingham metro-region. Similarly Oldham – the town has an identity and an economy of its own but is part of Greater Manchester.
But if we end up with remote and unaccountable regions replacing a remote and unaccountable westminister government we will have failed.
We have some real proud local leaders – Joe Anderson, Mayor of Liverpool, Jim McMahon Leader of Oldham, Darren Cooper, Leader of Sandwell. These leaders will create as well as respond to identity. In Brixton – seeing the energy and entrepreneurial makes me more proud of my area and also in need of visible leadership – maybe from outside the council. We were asked who should be leader of Brixton and I couldn’t think of anyone, though I like lots of the things that are happening.
We have to get power into the hands of people.
So alongside any Constitutional convention we need a People’s Convention – to make sure power is shared not horded and to look at how we can grow new local leaders.
An English Parliament sounds like Police and Crime Commissioners all over again. No-one cares.