My suggestion here is that making significant political change happen in the UK has now, mostly, been put into the ‘too hard to do’ box. The recent Scottish referendum with its galvanised discussions – 97 per cent voter registration and 83 per cent popular vote – only puts the rest of what happens these days politically into starker relief.
Of course, some will say that a referendum isn’t ‘proper’ voting, but that is just an excuse. We are now moving into a period of constitutional change for all of the UK, but where every tiny change will now require a huge amount of effort.
We can consider that this difficulty in making change happen dates back to 1992. John Major unexpectedly won the general election and the Tories stayed in power another five years.
The Labour Party was shocked to its core.
From this unexpected defeat came the essence of New Labour. But not just the policies and the presentation; above all we need to remember and understand the discipline. Up to the mid 1980s it had been said that the secret weapon of the Conservative Party was loyalty. Even before Margaret Thatcher was deposed as leader this public unity had fractured, most notably over the European Union. In turn, New Labour became the party of loyalty.
The downside of this discipline is that it became harder to argue publicly for some change. Because to argue publicly is to invite criticism, to feed talk of splits, of factions. Of course, the arguments still happened, but behind closed doors and on mobile phones. All very presentable, and of course now discredited as spin. So we had to become good Kremlinologists if we wanted to follow political debates.
The fashionable conclusion here would be to blame the Daily Mail, a paper that I do not like at all. It is the hostile press that has closed down the possibility of talking about political options in public. Maybe. But the hostile press were only ever fair-weather ‘friends’, and their negative influence is slowly declining, being replaced by social media trolls, often organised and now sometimes funded.
So, can we make change happen?
Just to be clear, my preferred devolution option is to cities, also known as city-regions and as metro-regions, but with a nuance. I share some people’s concern that Combined Authorities are too remote from the voting citizen, but I am equally not convinced that a Boris-style metro mayor is the answer. It makes easy TV, but is poor for political engagement. We need citizen engagement or civil society to mirror any new metro party-political arrangements, and in the current climate we do not have a lot of funds for new structures.
This means revisiting the too-high number of MPs in the House of Commons, and revisiting the powers that Westminster and HM Treasury takes to itself that cities could better manage themselves.