nationally must apply locally. All politics is local, a former US Speaker of
the House, Tip O’Neill, once famously said. He went on to say that politicians
must appeal to the simple, mundane and everyday concerns of those who elect
them into office. It
is those personal issues, rather than big and intangible ideas, which most
voters care most about, contradicting the notion that, in local elections,
people are casting votes to “send a message” to the highest levels.
That may be the
case in the United States, where there are still some vestiges of grass-roots
democracy. But in Britain, the very idea that we have local democracy is a fiction.
We have a system of local authorities which function mainly as central
government agencies. Their main task is to administer centrally-defined law at
a local level.
units, whether counties, second-tier districts or unitary authorities, have no
independent existence or powers. They are defined through Acts of Parliament
and owe their existence, their boundaries and their powers to the diktats of central government. They are
funded primarily from the centre and the nature of monies which can be
collected locally is directed by the centre, as well as the amounts and terms
This, by any
definition, is a top-down society. But it is also one which has become
increasingly so over time. As a result, local elections are little more than
opinion polls on the performance of central government, without even the
benefit of random sampling techniques. There is no point in getting excited
over the election of local officials when almost the entire extent of their
powers is determined by national law.
In our Harrogate
conference, therefore, local government “reform” featured high in our
discussions, although – in retrospect – one has to acknowledge that the very
idea of “reform” is absurd. How can you reform something you do not have? Since
we only have agents executing directives from Whitehall and Brussels, we need
to start from scratch. Centrally defined agencies must be replaced with truly
local structures. We need local government in the proper sense of the word,
under the control of their people.
To that effect,
our aim must be to invert the entire structure of the British state. Instead of
the top-down systems, we need to start locally and create structures built from
This is not
“localism” in the sense proposed by Prime Minister David Cameron, or anything
like “The Plan” offered by Conservatives Daniel Hannan MEP and Douglas Carswell MP. We are not impressed
by the idea of central government condescending to hand down some tiny fraction
of its power, under carefully controlled conditions, ready to claw it back at a
moment’s notice. Theirs is not a transfer of power – it is the granting of a
What we are
proposing is nothing short of revolution. The fundamental building blocks of
our democracy should become independent local units which owe their existence
to the people who live within their boundaries. Instead of being statutory
bodies – i.e., defined by statute, from which they derive their powers, under
the control of central government – they become constitutional entities. Their
existence, powers and revenue-raising capabilities are defined by the people
via the medium of constitutions, approved by local referendums.
authorities – which could be counties, cities or the former county boroughs –
become independent legislatures is their own right. Whereas local authorities
were once permitted to make by-laws, defined and permitted by central
government, true local government makes its own laws in its own name. Each
district makes all the laws for matters exclusive to its area, using powers
defined by its own constitution, applicable within its own boundary.
Some might think
that local authorities are too small to become legislatures, but size is not an
issue. Few people for instance, realise that Iceland, with a population of 313,000,
boasts fewer people than the London Borough of Croydon (363,000) and very
substantially less than the Metropolitan District of Bradford (501,000).
Yet Iceland is a
sovereign nation. It has its own government, its own parliament, its own laws,
its police and even its own fishing policy and navy to enforce it. Despite its
small size, the country does tolerably well, with a GDP of $12.57 billion
(146th in the world) and a GDP per capita of $38,500, the 24th highest in the
global league (higher than the UK’s $36,600, the 33rd highest). It also has its own local government, with 59
In Norway, which
has approximately five million inhabitants, there are 428 municipalities and 19
county authorities. More than half the municipalities have less than 5,000
inhabitants and only 14 have more than 50,000. The largest municipality is
Oslo, which is also a county. It has approximately 620,000 inhabitants. But the
smallest municipality is Utsira with 209 inhabitants.
In these two
countries, there is no confusion about the nature of local democracy, making a significant contrast with the
UK. And here one of the most recent
examples of the degradation of the idea of “local” government was in election
of police commissioners in England and Wales during 2012. The tone was set by
Home Secretary, Teresa May who refused to set a turnout threshold, arguing that
“the people elected as police commissioners will have
something that the current police authorities do not have, which is a
elected as commissioner for the former county
area of West Yorkshire was Labour’s Mark Burns-Williamson, a man who polled
114,736 first preference votes from an electorate of just over 1.6 million.
That gave him an effective mandate of 7.1 percent. But even to claim that he lacked a true
mandate is to miss the point. The election was cited as an example of local
democracy, yet West Yorkshire has a population of 2.2 million people in an area
of nearly 800 square miles. There are over 100 countries in the United
Nations with populations smaller than West Yorkshire.
The assertion that
such units, larger than many countries, can be considered “local” is laughable.
Furthermore, it is absurd to argue that local government units all need a
beneficent central government to make their laws, to fund them and even define
their boundaries. Their very existence as administrative units, subordinate to
the centre, is an affront to the very idea of democracy, when Iceland, the size
of an English borough, is an independent nation state in its own right. What might be
appropriate for England, therefore, are areas with populations in the order of
3-500,000, making up between 150-200 administrative units. Each could be
responsible for most of their own government, with their own constitutions,
sovereign legislatures, laws and revenues. Such units could also assume many of
the duties currently undertaken by central government. Those might include such
things as the determination and payment of social security and unemployment
benefits and the provision of health services currently administered by the
It follows that
all national laws applying to subjects which fall within the remit of local
government should become local laws. The local legislatures should be able to
re-enact them if so desired, or they can repeal or revise them.
A consequence of
this would be that the functions of central government would be drastically
reduced. Mainly, the centre would concern itself with foreign policy and
relations, including the framing of international law and making treaties. We
would see central government take a hand in making maritime law, controlling
deep water fisheries, and dealing with matters of national security and
defence. In what would effectively become a federal-style body, central
government would also concern itself with cross-border crime (where the
perpetrators operate in two or more police districts), and serious, organised
There then comes
the inevitable question of who pays, and more particularly how government is
paid. Control of taxation is at the heart of true localism, to which effect we
believe local governments, structured as constitutional bodies, should become
the primary collectors of tax. We would envisage that they collect most if not all the taxes from people and
enterprises resident or operating within their areas of jurisdiction.
Instead of the
system where only a fraction of their income is collected locally via Council
Tax and charges, with the balance made up from grants from the centre, local
authorities would collect their own taxes, such as Council Tax, but also income
tax, sales taxes, corporation taxes and most other taxes currently collected by
the centre. After they had taken what they needed to fund their own operations,
they would remit the surplus to central government, acting as collection
By this means,
rather than the centre subsidising local government, the relationship would be
reversed. Equity would be achieved by having poorer authorities remitting less,
per capita, to the centre. The richer
authorities, like the City of London, would pay more. The funding would be
managed on the same basis as the precepts currently collected locally, from
which are paid the police, fire services and transport authorities.
Only in extreme
emergencies would we expect any transfers of funds from centre to local
authorities, such as in the case of a major natural disaster. Norway, for instance, manages a system of
wealth transfer between local authorities, without involving central
taxation prevails, allied with local democracy, there is every opportunity for
variable rates and real tax-competition between local authorities. That in
itself could result in something we have never had in this country - downward
pressure on taxation.
This is the “small
government” which so many people profess to want, but even then – despite the
local units being constitutional bodies - that does not guarantee freedom from
central government interference. We see in the United States constant tension
between federal and state governments, and the encroachment of the centre.
Here, as always, the currency of power is money. The federal government, with
its own vast income stream - far larger than state revenues - is able to bribe
States with cash inducements or bludgeon them by withholding cash.
therefore, must be to control the flow of money. The centre should have very
limited taxation powers. It should not be allowed to borrow to finance a
deficit, except in very exceptional circumstances, and only with the explicit
permission of the people. It must not be able to bribe its way to power.
Taking in for the
moment the idea of Referism (about which we will have more to say later), we
see budgets at local and central levels controlled by annual referendums,
firmly limiting the expansionary tendencies of all governments. What is more, there is an important
side-effect: Westminster MPs become even less important than they are now,
while democratic representation at local level becomes more relevant and more
In some respects,
this also solves some of problems we have with MPs. One might expect seats to
be apportioned on a county basis, with approximately one per 120,000 head of
population. This ratio gives a House of Commons roughly the same size as it is
at present. The boundaries would be fixed.
As population varied, so would the number of MPs, keeping constituencies
wholly within the bounds of specific local authority areas.
should be, incidentally, based on population rather than electorate. Our MPs
should be representing the interests of all of their constituents, not just
those who can vote.
might argue that, with a reduced workload, fewer MPs would be needed, with a
ratio of perhaps 200,000 or more for each representative, possibly stretching
to one per 500,000 head of population. Where the United States House of
Representatives manages to make do with 435 voting members, our House of
Commons might be able to reduce itself to less than 300, saving expense. We
might expect numbers in the House of Lords to be proportionately reduced – with
perhaps only a hundred or so working members needed.
Details of how and
under what conditions individual MPs (and members of the upper house) are
selected might be left to the electors of the county, set out in each local
constitution and implemented by the local legislatures. After all, if we are to
have localism, then the terms and conditions governing the employment of
representatives should be decided locally.
We could also
envisage a situation where MPs are no longer paid from central funds, but by
their counties. It would be for the people of each county to decide how much
their representatives were paid, how much should be allowed by way of expenses,
and how they should be held accountable. Also, if one area wanted to introduce
a method of MP recall, that would be up to them. Thus do we see democracy
closer to the people, with government – local and national - under the direct
control of the people. When you think about it, anything else isn’t democracy