Take back control and hand it down

The latest contribution to our Brexit Debates series comes from Green party Peer, Baroness Jones. In her blog she talks about the need to counter political cynicism by giving local communities more control. She also considers how we could reform our political system to make it more transparent, democratic and representative of the people.

For many of us, the EU referendum result was a rejection of power being taken into fewer and fewer hands. The alienation, anger and cynicism was about the EU, but it was also about our wider political system.

What is the use in engaging with your ward councillor or even your MP if their hands are effectively tied by a European Commissioner or a Secretary of State?

I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the need to rebuild trust in politics from the ground up. But how can local councils regain your trust and faith if they’re powerless to address your concerns? Successive governments and European institutions have made it near-impossible for councils to meet basic local needs for housing and school places. In areas with growing populations this breeds cynicism, which can turn toxic when mixed with immigration.

It isn’t just ministers and their Whitehall mandarins who have centralised decision making.

Local government leaders have all too often responded to the hollowing out of their powers and funding with their own centralising tendencies.

I worked with some wonderful people running inspiring projects over sixteen years as a London Assembly Member. They were often tolerated, and occasionally supported, by their local councils. But as soon as they moved into areas that the council felt it controlled, or even started to challenge the council’s agenda, the council moved to take control.

One-party state councils and MPs close ranks against residents courageous enough to stand up to the council and demand to be heard, or involved, or in control. This just breeds further cynicism.

There are lots of ways to give people more control over their local area - neighbourhood planning and community-led housing, participatory budgets, local referenda. Greens have long called for this localist approach, and it seems the best possible response to the general mood after the Brexit vote.

Another problem is the Government giving away control - not to local people, but to corporations. I’ve no doubt we’ll see this in Brexit trade negotiations. The public are clearly unhappy with trade deals that put corporate profits above workers’ rights and the environment. So we need to democratise trade negotiations, giving Parliament more of a role and finding ways to involve citizens coalitions in the process.

Despite all my reservations about our broken political system, I still think it’s worth getting stuck in. But it’s not easy to interest others, and persuade them of its worth, when our institutions and procedures are so opaque.

Parliament is full of arcane rituals, mysterious procedures and labyrinthine corridors. Many of these make it difficult for the public to understand what we’re doing. Caroline Lucas MP proposed a series of reforms in 2010 based on her experience of the European Parliament, which is - in some ways - much more efficient and accessible to the public. For example, MEPs are encouraged to post a short paragraph on a special website explaining to constituents why they voted as they did on individual issues.

And of course there’s reforming the House of Lords. I’ve introduced a Bill that would break the logjam by more than halving the number of peers, but letting the current unelected Peers sit and contribute to debates without a vote.

In my years on the London Assembly I saw other good examples where we brought Londoners in to shape the political agenda - like redesigning committee investigations to give the voices of bus passengers and cyclists centre stage.

We should take this approach with the Brexit process. Not just roundtables of Tory policy wonks and Parliamentary committees. Let’s find ways to bring as many citizen and business groups in as possible, to really explore how to do things like farm subsidies and worker protections better.

Let’s take that slogan - take back control - and turn it on its head. My message to fellow politicians is: give up control. Pass it down to the most local appropriate level, and we can begin a long project to rebuild public confidence in our politics.

To hear more from Baroness Jones visit her website http://jennyjones.org

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Unlock Democracy