What is wrong with devolution plans for English cities?

Communists are all in favour of bringing power to ordinary people through accountable, locally-elected councillors, so why would we have a problem with ‘devolution’ plans currently being pushed by the British government?

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The simple answer to the question above is that the present proposals absolutely do not do what they say on the tin.

Less local representation presented as more

While being presented to workers in Liverpool and Manchester as a way of giving them greater say over the way their cities are governed, the new super-councils as currently envisaged will actually make the politicians at the top of the pile less accountable and leave the average local councillor with even less power than s/he has now.

This is to be explained by the fact that the new ‘devolved’ councils are to be led by a directly-elected mayor (as opposed to a mayor being selected by the various elected local councillors). This simply means that the four-yearly mayoral elections will become echoes of our national election sideshows – huge media circuses, with the winning candidates bankrolled by big business and backed by media tycoons. These financial backers will, in turn, expect loyalty to their interests from their chosen candidates.

The experience of London shows that, in a city or local authority run in this way, huge powers are concentrated in the hands of the mayor and his inner group of non-elected ‘advisors’, while the rest of the councillors are essentially there for show, taking little or no part in decision-making and merely raising the odd objection for the look of the thing.

These councillors, of course, are the ones we workers are told to write to or visit when we have concerns about the way our towns and cities are run. Just as with MPs, we are simply being left with a situation where the ‘elected representative’ to whom we make our representations makes sympathetic noises and promises to ‘bring up the matter’ at the next council meeting … knowing full well that nothing can or will come of such ‘action’.

That explains why business leaders are cock-a-hoop at the proposals, as evidenced in this report in the Manchester Evening News:

Business bosses in Greater Manchester have largely welcomed today’s announcement with open arms.

The IPPR north (Institute for Public Policy Research) described having new powers in the region as a ‘huge leap forward for devolution in England’, while Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce said having an elected mayor is a ‘game changer’.” (Our emphasis)

According to one Manchester business spokesman: “For too long, many businesses have been frustrated with decisions that impacted on them either being made remotely in Whitehall or locally, but with little if any input that reflected their views …

“We obviously need to see the finer details [of the devolution plans] to make sure there is a recognised role for business to play in this, as well as look at how more of the allocated local budget, including a reformed model for business rates, could be transferred to local control. But it is obvious from the pace and scope of the announcement that this is not only a major change in policy and local governance, but also a major opportunity for Greater Manchester.

“We have to make sure that business responds and reacts to take advantage of this.” (‘Manchester business reacts to devolution announcements’ by Alex Bell, 3 November 2014)

Career opportunities for bourgeois politicians

Also worthy of note are the inflated salaries that go with these new-style council positions, making them attractive to the kind of career politicians who workers have come to despise in central government.

Formerly, councillors (including mayors), received little more in the way of remuneration than expenses. Today, the mayor of London receives £144,000, while the mayor of a single London borough like Hackney receives £76,000. (See ‘London mayor Boris Johnson dismisses £250,000 second salary as “chicken feed”’, Guardian, 13 July 2009)

And these figures don’t take into account the large sums both officials receive for their other services to big business. Hackney Mayor Jules Pipe, for example, is paid £21,000 to chair the lobby group London Councils, while Boris Johnson earns £250,000 a year as a columnist for the Daily Telegraph. (See ‘“Two jobs” Mayor Pipe paid £97,000 per year by Adam Barnett, Hackney Citizen, 19 February 2013)

Rather than making local government more responsive and accountable to local electors, these proposals will make it less so. As is currently the case with national elections, the media (monopolised by the big bourgeoisie) will determine the outcome of elections, creating ‘personalities’ out of candidates whom most local workers will never have met or heard of. Highly-paid mayors and their cronies will then make decisions based on what suits their big-business sponsors. In effect, this ‘devolution’ simply means cutting out what little control (‘red tape’) local authorities have been left with after decades of gradual undermining of their positions.

Consolidating the position of big business

Of course, as communists, we are not in the business of pretending that anyone other than the ruling class rules, whatever the electoral or local government set-up. But the balance of class forces at any one time, along with the particular governmental mechanisms in place, can lead to higher or lower levels of accountability and local control, even within the capitalist system of government.

After the second world war, when the working-class movement was relatively strong in Britain, local councils had more accountability than ever before. It is no coincidence that these powers have been under attack ever since the general economic crisis of capitalism started to reassert itself in the late 1970s, leading to the election of Margaret Thatcher as the figurehead for the ruling class’s renewed attack on workers’ rights.

The gradual reduction in the number of councils (in the name of efficiency), and the removal of public health, ambulance services, further education colleges, most social housing estates and large numbers of schools from local government control are examples of the serious set-backs that workers have suffered as a result of the steady erosion of local government. Increasingly, local councils have simply become vehicles for national government policy, rather than exercising any real authority or independent decision-making, and councillors have moved from being locally-known figures to unknown political novices preparing themselves for better-paid jobs higher up the echelons of their respective bourgeois parties.

Hence the fact that we have already become used to the idea that local councillors don’t really have any power. The latest proposals, however, take the gradually eroded position of councils and councillors and consolidate the gains made by the ruling class over recent decades.

An interesting comparison can be seen by looking at the number of local councils that operate in other western European nations. France, with a population the same as Britain’s (62 million), has a system of more than 36,650 (!) local communes (an average of one local council for every 1,700 people), while Germany, with a population of 82 million has around 13,000 municipalities (an average of one local council for every 6,300 people). Britain, meanwhile, has just 434 local councils, working out at an average of one council for every 143,000 people. (See ‘Sub-national and local government’ by Tony Travers, Department of Government, lse.ac.uk, 25 November 2013)

It is clear that, even under the conditions of capitalism, the only way we are going to get any power back in the hands of really representative local councils is by building a movement capable of scaring the ruling class into making some serious concessions. It is equally clear from past experience that such concessions will always seen by our rulers as temporary.

If we want to put power in the hands of workers permanently, we are going to have to end the rule of the billionaire élite and replace its system of profit-before-all with a planned socialist economy that really serves the interests of the masses.

> Manchester business reacts to devolution announcements, Manchester Evening News

> Boris Johnson dismisses second salary as chickenfeed, The Guardian

> Two jobs Mayor Pipe paid 97K per year, Hackney Citizen

> Sub national and local government, Tony Travers Department of Government