Published on April 17, 2015

Do the main parties REALLY want to share power?

NHS Citizen Open government People & participation

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Screenshot showing a page from each of the two main parties' manifestos

The two main party manifestos contain a number of immediate headline grabbers such as the budget responsibility lock and the state pension triple lock. But what do their sales pitches tell us about how much control the two parties want to share with the citizens who will vote them in?

The mood music is good. Both Labour and Conservative manifestos are littered with pictures of people – families, hard at work citizens, nurses, teachers and, of course, children. In fact, they are so similar that it can be hard to tell which manifesto you are reading by picture alone.

 

“It is a profound Conservative belief that our country is made great not through the action of government alone, but through the flair, the ingenuity and hard work of the British people – and so it has proved the last five years.”

 

“The fundamental truth that runs through this [Labour] manifesto is that Britain will only succeed when working people succeed.”

Both parties want to convince us that they will put the public first. I wanted to see to what extent this is actually true and so spent some time putting the manifestos to the test.

In summary and despite the mood music about citizen involvement and control, both manifestos are very mixed bags. If I was to highlight any one particular concern it would be both parties’ focus on the devolution of power to new institutions without paying any attention to how citizens will be able to participate meaningfully in their decisions. Just because power is more local does not mean that citizens will have any more control over it. Indeed, there are plenty of ways that new local institutions could actually reduce rather than increase citizen control.

Open Government: Without the access to information needed to understand what decisions government is taking, and the institutions to hold decision-makers to account, citizens are unable to exert any meaningful power. It’s therefore positive, if unsurprising given Francis Maude’s championing of it during the last Parliament, to see the Conservative manifesto mention the Open Government Partnership. However, it is disappointing that the text mainly looks backwards rather than presenting a suite of strong commitments building on the UK’s last OGP national action plan.

While Labour’s manifesto doesn’t directly mention open government, it contains commitments on core issues for the open government movement such as open data, lobbying reform and Freedom of Information. This will give a little hope to some in the UK Open Government Network. However, neither party lays out a clear description of what open government means and a coherent programme for achieving it.

Devolution: In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, it is no surprise that both manifestos devote significant space to the question of devolution to the different nations of the UK. Labour is undoubtedly stronger here from an Involve perspective, committing to a “people led Constitutional Convention” to explore the issues raised.

However Labour is silent on how people other than the small number of citizens directly involved in the Convention will be able to contribute and take part. A Convention which doesn’t put significant effort into engaging the population risks being seen as just as remote and distant from people’s lives as Westminster politicians.  Significant questions also remain about whether the government will be compelled to act on what a Convention says and the extent to which citizens will be able to set the Convention agenda.

Both manifestos link devolution within the Union to the devolution of power and budgets to city and local councils too.

“We will embark on the biggest devolution of power to our English city and county regions in a hundred years with an English Devolution Act. It will transfer £30 billion of funding to city and county regions, along with new powers over economic development, skills, employment, housing, and business support.” Labour Manifesto, p64

 

“We will devolve far-reaching powers over economic development, transport and social care to large cities which choose to have elected mayors. We will legislate to deliver the historic deal for Greater Manchester, which will devolve powers and budgets and lead to the creation of a directly elected Mayor for Greater Manchester” Conservative Manifesto, p13

It is a significant weakness in the manifestos that both parties appear to be relying on elections to provide citizens with control without providing any thought or commitment to how they will be involved between votes. The Conservative proposal for a directly elected mayor also goes against the wishes of local people who rejected the idea.

Public service reform: It is clear that both parties see the impact of austerity on public services as being significant and implying more reorganisation if current levels of service are to be maintained. This challenge is nowhere more obvious than in health and social care. It seems reasonable to look at what the parties say about the role of citizens in this area as a proxy for how they view citizen involvement more widely in public service reform.

The scale of the challenge means that without meaningful involvement of the public the decisions taken are likely to be highly unpopular and have unforeseen impacts on some communities.

It’s disappointing therefore that the Conservative manifesto contains no mention of the role that citizens might play.

Labour’s pledge to “give English people a stronger voice in shaping the future of their local NHS services” is, on the face of it, more promising. However, the only concrete commitment is to give patients and the public “a seat at the table from the very start of any process that draws up plans for change, including changes to hospital services.” All of our experience suggests that appointing representatives onto decision-making forums does not lead to meaningful wider citizen involvement and will fail to balance the competing demands of local, regional and national levels in the system.

In short, neither party has grasped the potential of citizen involvement to contribute to more effective public service reform, nor the risks associated with failing to do so.

In conclusion

In the end my take away from the two manifestos is that neither has a coherent view on the role that citizens should play in a modern representative democracy. Both appear wedded to the idea that transferring powers between different levels of decision-makers will magically solve the problems the country faces. At a time of significant public disillusionment and disengagement from politics a much more coherent and realistic view is needed. Both parties need to involve the public in establishing a much better way forward.

 

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