A leading electoral campaign group has described England as ‘the gaping hole in the devolution settlement’ and is calling for a public debate on the issue to combat the ‘geography of discontent’ tied to a loss of trust in politics and loss of control.
The Electoral Reform Society’s report, Westminster Beyond Brexit: Ending the Politics of Division, sets out a vision to achieve a “flourishing democracy” and calls for a public debate on English devolution, claiming that England remains “highly centralised” and “primarily ruled through British/UK-wide institutions”.
It claims that until now, devolution within England has been “limited and piecemeal”, and not motivated by a comprehensive, long-term plan to give genuine political representation to “Englishness’.
Research cited in the report by Henderson, Ailsa, Charlie Jeffery, Dan Wincott and Wyn Jones shows a clear connection between ‘Englishness’ and the leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum: 73% of those who prioritise their English identity said they intended to vote leave, whilst just 35% of those who prioritise their British identity intended to.
The report argues that the city deals – devolved powers in return for combined authorities and directly elected mayors – are “driven by economic concerns, rather than democratic ones”.
“Regional devolution has been pursued as a way of tackling economic underperformance, administrative inefficiencies and public service reform, not of empowering local democracy,” the report said. “In fact, the democratic aspect has been largely lost in deals decided by local and central elites.”
It cites the example of the 2012 referendum on having a directly- elected mayor for Manchester, which was rejected by the majority of Mancunian voters. “There was no democratic sign off for the deal agreed,” the report said.
Around a third of the English population have a metro mayor, but there is as yet no alternative model for the rest of the country, and the report claims that “growing economic inequalities are matched by asymmetries with respect to powers and representation”.
The report calls for a new, “more bottom-up model”, adding that “regional devolution may be the answer, but it will need to start from a democratic perspective, focusing on people and locality, not economic competition”.
The report claims that for the most part, devolution within England has been a “top-down project”. It cites the example of the failure of the North East Assembly referendum in 2004, which drew discussion of devolution to English regions to a close and was “shaped more by the Westminster government than the people of the North East”.
The report says the democratic rejection of the regional assembly model was not necessarily a rejection of English regionalism or greater local powers, but the rejection of a top- down model of devolution without meaningful power.
It claims that the campaign for a Cornish assembly, which gained momentum in 2001, did not fit the model favoured by the government at that time, which was focused on administrative regions, and was not given a referendum, “despite being a strong and distinctive cultural, historical and social identity”.
The Electoral Reform Society has long argued for proportional representation for the House of Commons, and in this report, it also calls for more regional representation in the House of Lords, as well as calling for English citizens to be given the chance to chance to discuss their constitutional future. “What is most important about the question of England’s place in the constitutional set up of the UK, is that England has not yet had a say in it,” it said.
New polling for the report by BMG research found that 67% of respondents felt they had very few or no opportunities to inform and influence the decisions made by MPs at Westminster, with only 4% saying they had a lot of opportunities.
The poll findings are echoed in this year’s Audit of Political Engagement by the Hansard Society, now in its 16th year, which found that a record-breaking 47% of people feel that they have no influence over national decision-making, and that those who ‘strongly disagree’ that political involvement can change the way the UK is run is up to a record 18%.