We need a radical solution to fight populism — the answer might be federalism

The only real and effective solution to the reactionary politics of populism is returning power to people at a local level.

Scottish and Welsh First Ministers are meeting today to discuss how to prevent a Westminster ‘power grab’ of formerly-European powers after Brexit. Sam Alvis considers another option – a federal UK. Is it time for Labour to embrace a radical new constitutional model?

‘This is a victory for real people’, Nigel Farage said last June as the results of the Brexit referendum came in. A victory, Farage seemed to say, over that much lauded group the ‘metropolitan, liberal elite’, that work UKIP up into such a frenzy.

This fixation on ‘real people’ vs elites is populism, pure and simple. Populism isn’t a set of policies or ideology and its claim to represent ‘real’ people is nothing of the sort.

Populism, like nationalism, is the politics of blame and victimhood and it’s wrecking real lives around the world

So far, Labour has had no answer to populism. In 2015 it tried to address concerns over immigration with mugs. While in 2016 Corbyn’s staff spoke openly about imitating Donald trump’s style.

Neither are solutions. There has been no serious attempt to engage with the concerns of those drawn to populists. Those feeling disconnected from politics, let down by policies not made with them in mind.

There is a solution. One that really returns power to people, something that can make policies more relevant to their problems. That is federalism.

Federalism is a dual mechanism of government — used in the USA, Germany and Switzerland — with regional and a national authorities. It isn’t the same as devolution as the local level isn’t subordinate, but an equal partner with differing responsibilities.

Labour have got close. We have been vocal champions for meaningful devolution, driving parliaments in Wales and Scotland and power sharing in Northern Ireland.

Ed Miliband’s 2015 offer of a constitutional convention got closer. Kezia Dugdale, championed by Gordon Brown, has made it a central tenement of her offer in Scotland, with Corbyn promising to consider it.

Compared to Scotland, NI or Wales, England would be too big for one region. So far Labour’s offer on English devolution has been paltry. Despite controlling London, Manchester and Liverpool, localism was George Osborne’s drive.

His attempt is a sham. It doesn’t give real power, and was designed only to entice northern voters to the Tories rather than to genuinely improve people’s lives.

Alasdair Rae’s imagining of a regional England (via CityMetric)

Osborne allowed mayors to spend finances but didn’t give them the ability to earn any. Powers were divided unequally; a recipe for resentment. It was a political trap for labour strongholds, faced with imposing Tory cuts. But it’s a trap Theresa May has left dormant.

Federalism gives Labour the upper hand. Regional parliaments would have the power to raise money through tailored taxes or business rates and spend it on infrastructure or welfare.

Inter-region competition would drive regional industrial hubs, tailoring skill provision or tax relief. Policy solutions could more readily reflect regional variation. Disease prevalence, service needs, weather and culture vary hugely between Hull the Hebrides or Hampstead.

Regional governments are better placed to involve community groups in local services.

This makes policy more relevant to people and influential policy makers are physically and symbolically closer. Democracy is on your doorstep not behind closed doors hundreds of miles away.

Where does this leave the national parliament? Firstly the House of Lords becomes a body of regional representatives, able to champion local priorities and share effective policy lessons.

Labour could kick start the process by shifting institutions to Manchester, creating a civic capital to rival London’s economic role.

Secondly it allows the state to show clear added value. For a labour government this would be in redistribution between regions to provide equality of opportunity.

The state becomes a coordinator, joining up actions to make individual regions more powerful. Westminster would continue to fund things like the NHS, military and foreign affairs, but with regions able to use different institutions how they see fit.

Labour’s local success is a powerful tool to prevent rising nationalism in the UK, and undermine it in Scotland. Federalism makes it harder to blame those on the outside whether they are in Brussels or Westminster. It leaves less room for negative sentiment towards policies developed elsewhere.

There is a risk that federalism could put populist parties in power. But that is democracy. And there’s nothing that unravels populism faster than the challenge of actually governing.

As Gordon Brown has said, people care about democracy because it produces good results and is fair. A promise to restore power to people, to restore trust in politics, and to give back control is one Labour has to seize. 

You can follow Sam Alvis on Twitter here.

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15 Responses to “We need a radical solution to fight populism — the answer might be federalism”

  1. NHSGP

    You call it populism.

    The rest of us call it democracy.

  2. NHSGP

    The challenge is to clear up the shit pile created by Labour, Tories and Lib dems.

    The way to do that is on taking power demand a proper audit of the accounts.

    In particular the amount of state debts.

    Pensions for example is 10 trillion pound debt.

    Then you send every tax payer a demand for their 425K share, pointing out that if they don’t pay they will be arrested and jailed, assets confiscated.

    When the fuss kicks off, then go for the fraud changes. Section 2, 2006 Fraud act will see all the established MPs jailed.

    Rather funny because the claim will be the jury is made up of their victims. Just as a good as claiming you committed the crime.

    Then you have the problem of cleaning it up. Here you need to resort to a referendum where the public get to choose who loses the most.

  3. patrick newman

    NHSGP – that’s not even good satire.
    We something to replace the Osborne attempt to reorganise local goverment in his lunchtime – AKA devolution. Andy Burnham now realises it wasn’t devolution but devo-illusion!

  4. Stephen Smith

    Inter-region competition ???

    They aren’t in competition with each other – they are working together – or should be.

    Do you also realise that you’ve managed to cut most of the North of England out of the picture ? Or is it that part of the plan – a wall across the middle (and the North’s gonna pay for it – they don’t know it yet , bt they are ).

    Daftest idea since Margaret Thatcher wanted to close Liverpool down

  5. Stephen Smith

    PS – what the fuck is Dumnonia when it’s at home ?

  6. Fred

    The Left’s definitions:

    “Populism” : anything that enjoys widespread support that the Left doesn’t agree with.
    “People power” : anything that enjoys widespread support that the Left agrees with.

  7. ad

    Politics does seem to be getting more vicious now. I suppose federalism might marginally reduce that, but it does not seem to have done so in the US. I’d like to have STV, as in Ulster and Ireland, because that was designed explicitly to dis-empower the extremists. In Ulster the assembly even elects the cabinet ministers by PR, which should certainly stop any particular group of extremists from gaining power.

    If it is good enough for Stormont, why isn’t it good enough for Westminster?

  8. Chester Draws

    Populism thrives in little areas, because the competing interests are smaller.

    Switzerland avoids it because it mostly gives its politicians very little power or prestige. That is what the UK should be aiming for if it wants to avoid populism — reducing the power of politicians, not increasing their number and reach. Normally LFF aren’t big on the libertarian strand in Swiss politics.

  9. BSA

    There is no support in England for federalism, however many Anglo Saxon kingdoms you resurrect and smearing Scottish independence with the usual glib ‘populist’/’Nationalist’ labels is unlikely to produce much support there either. As one of the two constituent states of the Union it’s doubtful if Scotland sees itself rubbing shoulders with ‘Dumnonia’ in a federal parliament.

  10. Greg

    But this won’t be democracy of any kind – will it?

    There will be a re-incarnation of John Prescott’s Regional Assemblies and Regional Development Agencies that gave our parks and countryside to developers.

    And these bodies will be populated with the same self-serving quasi-governing NGOs where consultation means imposition, and the opinions and environments of the residents mean nothing.

    I watched the degradation of my city and its people, and the main beneficiaries were the councillors and the placemen/women they shoehorned into created positions.

    Give me real democracy: a list of things I may wish for and require, and a box to tick – and a way to reject the machinations of the EU-sponsored IPPR and their nation-killing masters.

  11. Alex from Carlisle

    Honestly, I never liked the idea of splitting England up into a bunch of Euro Regions, but if it’s Old English kingdoms we’re talking about then I couldn’t be more enthusiastic! The left have always loathed Englishness – imagine how triggered they’ll be with six different kinds of Englishness based on ethno-cultural tribal borders. They’ll have to create safe spaces to accommodate all the Britisher outlanders 🙂

  12. Paddy Briggs

    A Federal UK is a good idea in or out of the EU. In the EU it would be consistent with the Union’s commitment to subsidiarity. However creating a new tier of Government has to be done for the right reasons. A powerless tier would just be window dressing and bring costs without benefits. The model is there in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The English regions would have to be similarly empowered. This is not easy because unlike the Celts the English have no historic regions and they would have to be created. This would be immensely complex and culturally challenging – and conservatives would oppose it I’m sure.

    Westminster needs major revision as well. With Regional Parliaments the central Government would have a much reduced role. A good thing. Time to review the House of Lords at the same time.

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