Active citizenship – reinventing Welsh democracy 

This article is an edited version of a lecture that I gave last week at Cardiff Business School. The lecture examined the culture and the relationship between Welsh Government and Local Government. It also attempts to sketch out some of the reasons why I believe that greater devolution across Wales will help strengthen our democracy and why there’s a strong socialist case for a more radical approach to the wider reform debate.

I did not come into politics in take part in a debate between different management consultancies or a sterile argument between different versions of a technocratic theory. For me the way in which we order our affairs as a society is a deeply political and philosophical question. Too often our politics has been about choosing between two versions of the same committee structure. In the last few weeks much of the criticism levelled at me is that I’m either being too radical or too ambitious. Whilst I’m very happy to be found guilty on both charges the fact that being seen as either radical or ambitious is now seen as valid grounds for criticism speaks of a political culture that has probably lost its way.

So this evening I want to reassert that radical and ambitious agenda. I believe that to do otherwise would be a failure of leadership and a failure to speak for the people we seek to represent and I want that agenda to be rooted in our values. Let me start with the most fundamental of those values – democracy.

Whilst we are one of Europe’s oldest nations we are also one of Europe’s youngest political nations. And this is something which we all sometimes fail to remember. All too often we compare ourselves unfavourably with parliamentary democracy as practiced in the Palace by the Thames. But the hard reality is that we have been inventing a new democracy in a country where there had previously been little independent thought or thinking. As a politics student in the eighties my tutor, Denis Balsom, would often ask whether Welsh politics existed at all. The question serves to remind us that our emerging new democracy is barely a generation or two away from an ill-disguised autocracy where two or three ministers would take decisions and govern our country behind closed doors.

Fundamental to any democracy is the active participation of citizens in selecting and choosing the way in which power is used on their behalf and in their name. And for me active citizenship is at the heart of my proposals for reform. 

Wales has a radical political history and I hope that we can still see some echoes of those radical traditions.

In the next week we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Act of Parliament that established the National Health Service. But of course the NHS was not the brainchild of a government. It was actually born in 1890 when the Tredegar Medical Aid and Sick Relief Fund was created with each worker in the town contributing halfpenny a week. It grew to provide services to 20,000 people including my own mother and father. And this was local citizens, taking matters into their own hands and creating the structures and services that they required, designed and delivered according their needs and their wishes. Active citizenship. And democracy was at its heart – they even elected the doctors! 

And growing up in Tredegar the medical aid society was a part of my childhood. Not simply the buildings – although I did see the doctor in old surgery buildings and I did visit relatives in the cottage hospital built on land donated to the Fund by Lord Tredegar in 1904 but more than all of that, the philosophy of the medical aid society was a fundamental part of our socialism. The belief that local people can demand, design, manage, control and then deliver their own local services was reinforced by the local council – the Tredegar Urban District Council – which provided a rich variety of services for the people of the town. 

But what’s this got to do with the challenges facing us today?

Because when faced with a significant challenge it must be our values that drive our solutions. We must not simply seek a managerial response or fix. And when local government leaders told me last year that the current system and structure is not sustainable it was to these values that I turned in fashioning my response.

And this is important. Why do we need democratic accountability for the mechanical process of taking away our refuse and recycling? Why the need for democratic oversight of the way in which the grass is cut in parks and public places?

I will argue that these decisions are not simply about delivering services, each individual decision shapes those services. And of course we also tax people locally. And democratic oversight of that taxation is a fundamental part of our system of governance the American revolutionary demand – no taxation without representation – still reverberates down the centuries.

And I want these decisions to be rooted in a renewed democracy driven by active citizenship. Not a tired democracy where people do not feel able or motivated to participate.

How do we achieve this?

In my view we place real power in the hands of the citizen and we enable the citizen and powerful new councils to exercise that power. So we will start by making it easier to participate in local elections.

We will legislate in the next year to start the process of enabling electronic voting and counting and extend the franchise – active citizenship must start with an enfranchised and inclusive community.

But active citizenship demands accountability more than once every four or five years. The politicians of the future will need to be far more responsive to their electorates than the politicians of today. In my time in elected office I have seen the number of letters we receive fall to a trickle. Social media is now the main communications channel. As a society and as a political system we are still coming to terms with the power of social media channels. I am an optimist and I believe that our society will in time learn to use social media in a more mature and thoughtful way.

So the active citizen of tomorrow will be able and willing to communicate instantly – and expect instantaneous response – and able to mobilise at a pace and scale we haven’t seen before. For us politicians, this is a great challenge. For citizens, a great opportunity.

As well as providing the tools and means to participate we need to provide the structures for a new democratic settlement which will enable and allow citizens the opportunity to take more decisions locally. Although I don’t agree with the whole of his doctrines in The Road to Serfdom I do agree with FA Hayek when he said “nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government”. And if active citizenship is to mean anything in Wales then the ability to apply this locally is fundamental to the growth and deepening and maturing of our own democracy.

The last century has seen the steady erosion of local power and locally-delivered services. And let’s be clear these last few years have not been easy for local government either. Whilst in Wales local councils have been protected from the whirlwind which has ripped through local government resources across the border,  I recognise that balancing budgets is becoming increasingly difficult. Especially so when we have a structure that is itself cumbersome and top-heavy.

At the same time we have not yet hard-wired the good work such as the 21st century schools programme to become the norm. When we work together we can harness and put to work some fantastic knowledge and experience to be found in county halls across the country together with the resources and power of the Welsh Government. But this has not happened in a planned, mature and consistent way. Twenty years on, the relationship between the Welsh Government and local government still has not yet matured.

My conclusion is that if our democracy and our political relationships are to mature, then it will only happen when power is held and exercised locally and where communities are able to hold locally-elected councils and councillors to account for their decisions.

So in addressing the future of local government I want not simply to arrest the process of centralisation but to reverse it. I have campaigned all of my adult life for devolution and the end of the UK unitary state. For me, strong home rule parliaments in Wales and Scotland form the bedrock of the architecture of our new United Kingdom. But I haven’t campaigned to create a strong parliamentary democracy in Wales only to create a new unitary state based in Cardiff Bay.

So devolution must now mean devolution within Wales and real devolution to communities across and throughout Wales. I will publish a vision for new empowered councils that will describe my ambition to transfer power from Cardiff to county halls across the country. And I intend that this takes place as a part of a process of the simplification of how we practice governance. Councils should have new powers to act and new opportunities to increase and strengthen their financial resilience. And I hope that it will be underpinned by a new national framework within which empowered councils with the capacity and ability to lead will exercise their powers locally, regionally and nationally.

And the reduction of complexity in government is essential to a maturing and active and empowered democracy.

We have created a complexity in governance. And this complexity is not a benign entanglement of committees. It is something which disempowers both public servants and citizens. I do not support the creation of an additional and unnecessary web of boards and committees because these models of governance not only take the business of government further away from the citizen but also fundamentally undermines the principle of democratic accountability. And they sap our collective energy, use up precious resources but more than this such complexity fundamentally mitigates against reform and change.  

I have spoken to too many people over the past few months who spend far too much time in meetings and not delivering services. I spoke to one person who described 74 different committees, groups or partnerships that she needs to attend. Our newly-appointed Violence against Women national advisors have also described the complexity of government as a real barrier to providing support to some very vulnerable people. Other public sector mangers have described to me how they attend multiple meetings to agree common approaches to solving basic problems. Decision-making needs to be simplified to allow for more effective delivery and implementation.

At a time when our finances are under enormous pressure it appears to me to be curious how we believe that greater complexity will in any way address the challenges ahead.

Many of those who argue against larger authorities do so out of a well-founded sense that a larger authority will not provide the same localism as a smaller authority. I sympathise with their fears. 

For me, the issue is empowerment of local councils not their geographical or population size. This is not an argument based simply on numbers, it is a pragmatic one and should be rooted in the kind of local democracy we want as a country but which also recognises our communities and local identities.

So I propose that at the same time as we provide more powers for the principal authorities that we also seek to enable town and community councils to play a larger role in shaping our communities. The independent panel that has been looking at these issues believes that the larger principal authorities should deliver the “people” services but that local community councils could deliver more “place-based” services. And I agree. 

So a new settlement. Greater power exercised locally with greater opportunities to innovate and to drive change. And with greater power comes greater responsibility. So I would also want to see local government taking greater responsibility for the improvement of services provided by local authorities. This is the reality of a maturing system and a maturing relationship with the Welsh Government.

The Welsh Government has acted on many occasions to step in where there is service or democratic failure and that is right. We cannot tolerate poor performance. But, in fixing those problems we rely on those with expertise in the corporate and service functions and not in Welsh Government.   

So, to me, it makes sense that local government takes on a far greater role and responsibility for improvement functions. That will demand a greater self awareness of performance and drive for improvement among local government itself. It will demand a greater collective response where authorities act together for the greater good. It may be that we could create a national improvement agency as a partnership between the Welsh Government and local government but rooted in local government with local government taking the lead. 

At the same time,  technology is going to drive changes in the way in which services are delivered and in how councils and government operate, more so than we fully understand today. We have already created a project to look at how the digitisation of government will drive change. For the future, I believe that a national shared services agency could provide the basis to share and deliver these changes whilst at the same time protecting employment in some very vulnerable and fragile communities. But again a partnership between the Welsh Government and local government. And again rooted in and driven by local government. 

By providing new powers to be held locally, new opportunities to use those powers and by increasing and deepening local democratic debate, I believe that we will, over time, change the culture of government. And by doing so, change the relationship between local government and Welsh Government.

So as I recognise that structural change can and must lead cultural change in way we manage and deliver public services I also recognise that structural change alone can deliver these ambitions. We know that many services are not meeting citizens expectations and it is difficult to see how we will meet the fair expectations of citizens anytime in the near future without a change and reform programme as I have described this evening. 

I am painful aware that the failure rate of government-led transformations is high. And that the reasons for this failure are multi-faceted. But I believe that we can deliver change if we provide clear leadership, a clear purpose and priorities, if Welsh Government provides the support and capacity to deliver change. But I also understand that we need to win hearts and minds as well. I want to lead reform and not simply impose reform. 

In order to win hearts and minds we must also establish trust.

The new empowered councils will have a considerable suite of new responsibilities and powers. Perhaps it is a step too far to say that the new Monmouthshire or Gwynedd should have parliaments rather than a council. But I hope that collectively and individually these new authorities will exercise a greater range of powers than our predecessors when the Assembly was created in 1999.

I believe that we need a break from the past in building our new democracy. So let’s go further and entrench these new powers with a new system and within a new agreement. I recognise that in any parliamentary system it is difficult to entrench powers so let me suggest this; 

That we sign, together, the Welsh Government and the leaders of local government, a Charter for Democracy. Based upon the EU Charter for local government, but focused on our own agenda for decentralisation and democracy where the new powers for local government are codified and placed on the statute book. 

It is a statement that in the future we will have a mature and intelligent relationships based upon mutual respect and mutual esteem and an agreement on how we work together, structurally and culturally. 

So active citizenship, rooted in our values and in our democratic traditions. Reinventing our democracy and entrenching powerful new authorities where vibrant and active democratic debate will renew and rejuvenate our politics for the future. The delivery of excellence in public services, the protection and investment in the workforce will be driven by a more fundamental accountability to and in the communities we serve.

And this is why I remain passionate about reform and passionate about the journey ahead. I believe in the public good and the public purpose and I believe in collective action.

I read last week that to succeed in reform one needs to be resilient, determined and persistent. It is for others to judge whether this is a good policy or whether it is the right policy. But it is my belief that by following this route we will not only deliver better services but that we will also strengthen and deepen our democracy. 

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