Steve Reed, MP for Croydon and Shadow Secretary of State for Communities, laid out his arguments for why the UK government needs to further devolve decision-making at an event organised by Big Tent Ideas Tuesday night (3 November). In an interview moderated by award-winning journalist Jo Phillips, he used the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic response as an example of why centralised processes are doomed to fail.


“The Government has tried to over centralise PPE distribution and track and trace, and all of it has failed. The people who understand track and trace are the local public health experts who understand how their communities work.”


“In this society where information and data are much more open, people can see that promises made cannot be delivered. This is often because a central system just doesn’t work.”


After years of campaigning for devolution, Reed has made the conclusion that many politicians who champion the issue eventually work against it as they climb the ranks:


“We’ve been waiting for a new era in community development for a decade. The problem is that politicians don’t want to let power go.”


“It seems to be hardwired to politicians that you climb up the greasy pole and then exercise your power over everyone else.”


Reed also highlighted that centralism exists at the local level too, and that a big part of getting communities more involved in politics is to ‘organically develop engagement from the bottom up’:


“Devolution has to be about a lot more than shifting decision-making from one set of politicians to another. You get local centralism too. My experience is that you can wander around housing estates where people feel as disconnected from power in their town hall as they did Whitehall.”


“We should open up our data, share it with the citizens affected by decisions and involve them.”


There are cultural reasons such as party political polarisation that are contributing to devolution not being considered according to Reed, who sees this trend not only in the UK but also in the US:


“There is a cultural aspect to this, but we can change that. Even if Biden wins against Trump, that doesn’t solve the problem that confidence and trust in decision making is down.”


“We’re far too confrontational. We need to get back to this idea that politics is about negotiations leading to outcomes benefitting the common good. We’ve lost a culture of respect in our politics and need to get it back.”


“It is always better to assume that a majority of the people affected by decisions are adults able to participate.”


Following a discussion with fellow MP and Conservative back bencher, George Freeman, on the possibility of cross-party collaboration when it comes to opening up public decision-making to citizens which they both want to do, Reed closed the session by asserting that concerted action is needed in order to democratise the UK:


“A democracy is actually an aberration in terms of organisation. We have to cherish and nurture it, and right now this means not defending the status quo but to rebuild it with our communities.”


“We need to look at how we can build community-size institutions that give people the ability to assert power and get their voices heard.”

Big Tent Ideas Festival

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