Rob Foster @FuturesInfinite interviews Simon Parker author of Taking Power Back Published by Policy Press

Local Devolution in England is at the forefront of political thinking at the moment, although like all seemingly overnight sensations it’s taken a long time to arrive. Do you think its time has finally come, that genuine devolution really is going to happen? What would you say are the biggest obstacles?

Well devolution is happening & it is real, & we’re seeing substantial powers going down to local government. & whilst these are powers that, if they’re looked at in the context of the wider set up in Europe or America, they aren’t all that exciting. But we do start from a position of being a very centralised society, & we’ve been becoming more centralised for the last 70 or 80 years, so anything that throws some of that into reverse is actually a really, really big deal.

I think that’s happening partly because of a lot of political reasons: yes it’s partly about cuts, but it’s also partly about revitalising the economy. But fundamentally I think there are some really big driving forces which are driving us away from centralism. We’ve taken centralism about as far as it can in this country – by the end of the Blair/ Brown years it was hard to see anything really left to be centralised. When David Cameron came in in 2010, there was no further to go in terms of centralising, so you have to start thinking in the other direction.

But more fundamentally what we’ve seen happening over the last few years – trust in politics has fallen, people want to take power back into their own hands. Technology is enabling us to do things in our own homes that a generation ago would have been impossible, & technology is giving us all a lot more ability to do a lot more for ourselves & to network with others. It feels to me like we’re a society that’s moving away from the idea that centralism has all the answers, & even if you wanted to maintain the centralised status quo there are so many forces pulling against centralism – cultural forces, ethnic forces, technological forces – that it simply can’t hold on any more. We’re moving into a different era & the devolution deals we’re seeing now are a real thing, they’re a limited form of devo but they’re a start I think of a much bigger process which is going to transform the way we understand British government over the next generation.

Do you think there’s a public groundswell, a public clamour for devolution? Or is it mainly led by politicians?

The way government is doing devolution right now is driven by elites. This is not devolution that’s about democracy, this is devolution that’s about economic growth & to a certain extent the cities that are taking on devolution are playing along with that. The key thing here is if we’re going to hand down power to just another bunch of local politicians & local bureaucrats, that isn’t going to address the problems that people have with local democracy & local politics. If you’re in Manchester at the moment & you’re seeing Government handing power to an elected Mayor, you could see that as one bunch of unaccountable politicians transferring power to another unaccountable politician. So we’ve got to have a much more radical conversation about how people are allowed to shape the ways that city government works. One of the problems with this whole agenda is that we’re bringing more responsibility, more services down to cities & to shires but we’re not bringing down more political power – and a lot of people say if there’s not political power it’s not real devolution, to which my response is “No there isn’t political power yet, but if we don’t take the devolution now, we’ll never get the political power”.

The opportunity for devolution is here – let’s make the most of what the opportunity is.

We’ve got to take what’s on offer, & then we’ve got to try to make it better. The real possibilities will be when places like Greater Manchester & like South Yorkshire start showing they can run their own distinctive economic policy. If you’re Greater Manchester, why should you fit into a national economic framework? Why shouldn’t you do something different? Why shouldn’t you be able to tweak benefits, or be able to focus on particular types of business? Why shouldn’t you be able to look at co-ops & social enterprises?

I think it’s really interesting that we’ve got a Conservative government that’s very austerity focussed & who want a smaller state, giving power to local Labour authorities. Devolution is creating a real opportunity & is also laying down a huge challenge to local authorities. The opportunity for those northern cities is to take those responsibilities & that agenda, & yes the austerity is an absolute nightmare & is very difficult, but it’s also an opportunity to say to central government “when we take on these powers, we’re going to do things our way & that’s not your way, & that’s fine.”

The local leadership from Labour politicians is in the vanguard of devolution, as compared to national leadership who haven’t pushed this agenda.

The tone of Labour conference was that the national party is really not sure about devolution. Jon Trickett described it as an assault on local democracy. If you’re in Manchester & you’re getting on & doing it, what you want is someone to support you to get on & use devolution to implement your party’s values at a local level. & for national politicians to be implying that you’ve fallen for this clever deception by George Osborne has got to be disheartening. So I think Labour is still really struggling with devolution & decentralisation. This is not a party that’s comfortable with a world that is becoming ever more decentralised – but we’re moving into a world where I think the only way to deliver progressive politics is to let go of some of that, to accept that power is diluted, that local variation might be a good thing. At the local level, the Labour leaders just get it in spades & they’re just getting on & doing it. The truth is if you’re in a big city & you’re a labour politician, you’ve just got to get on with it.

There is of course a very different political make up in cities & shires. How do you see things developing beyond the big cities – do you think we will see parallel developments in the shires? The same kind of progress?

It’s more complicated in the shires, partly because the governance is even more difficult to sort out; two tier areas just are more difficult. I think fundamentally this model of devolution that Osbourne is pursuing is a model that was born & raised in Greater Manchester. It is a model that’s built for cities, it’s built for unitary government & it’s going to need a lot of adapting to be able to work in county areas. All that said, I’m quite optimistic that it will move into the shires, partly because I think there’s some counties that have really got their act together & started to tell a really strong story.

Looking at the politics, you’ve got a Conservative Chancellor enthusiastically giving power to Labour cities, & eventually he’s going to face his own party in local government saying “come on, you’ve got to give us something too.” So if I was George Osborne I’d want to make sure I did a deal with a County early to show I’m game for that, & I’d very much want to make sure I was covering my own back with my party whilst still recognising that the biggest wins are in the Northern Powerhouse.

Your book is very city centric regarding devolution, but the examples you cite of progressive innovation are often from smaller towns & more rural areas.

The chapter that really looks at devolution & local government does focus on cities. The chapter that focuses on the “Commons” & the “democracy of doing” – lots of these examples are happening outside of cities. There’s definitely something about smaller communities, a bit further away from everyone else – if not isolated then certainly at a distance from the big cities – where you often get that spirit of mutual aid & self-reliance that’s really alive there.

There’s a bit of a divergence. In the cities the agenda is fundamentally driven by growth, that’s how you survive. I wonder if in rural areas the story is going to be driven a little bit more by questions about public service reform, & questions about getting to the community differently. If you look at the opportunities they’ve got a lot of the really exciting stuff they’re doing is quite ambitious stuff around approaches to work with health, approaches with the community; so devolution might take a slightly different shape in county areas.

One of the things that is absolutely right about how this devolution process is being run by Government is that they have insisted that proposals have to come from local areas. What they want is for local places to stand up & say “this is what we want & this how we’ll make it work”, rather than central government saying “we want to do this & this is how it will happen, so here you go”.

You talk in the book about “commonism” – “a philosophical reframing of the way in which we see ourselves in society” is the definition you give – based on self-governing mutual aid, loose networks etc. How have you arrived at this position?

I arrived at commonism from several different perspectives. I’m not terribly party political but I look at the world from somewhere on the progressive left, but I’m also quite sceptical about governments. I’m not someone who thinks governments have all the answers, in fact I’m quite sceptical about the role government sometimes plays in society. I think that government can often do as much harm as it does good. So I’m on the left but I’m not sure about the state: what on earth does that make me? But if you look back historically it’s not that weird, a lot of early socialist thinking was about abolishing the state, not about creating this big gigantic one that tells everyone what to do. Commonism is partly the position of someone who believe social equality, justice & fairness bit doesn’t believe that state is a very good tool for delivering it all the time, & would like a better balance. That’s the political way of approaching it.

The practical way of looking at it is: we are moving into a society that will have a smaller government, & what the government will spend its money on will be so very different that it will feel much smaller to most of us anyway. Look at demographics, the ageing population, pressure on pensions & social care – as the economy grows, a lot of government spending will be soaked up directly into looking after older people. That will leave quite a gap. So if we’re going to have a smaller state, does it have to mean less government & more free market, or could it mean something else? Can it mean a world where not only is there a smaller state, but there’s also a smaller private sector & a lot of social stuff in between? The idea of commonism is that we can have social progress that doesn’t need a big state or the free market, there’s a whole other realm of civil society. Could it function differently if we could harness new technology & changing social attitudes? If we could harness the co-operative movement that has blossomed over the last few years, could we create a different better way of maintaining the public realm, of looking after each other? A way that’s more satisfying for people, resulting in better care, that doesn’t require us to have a great big government telling us what to do all the time? Could we be more free, better cared for, & actually have fun doing it? Wouldn’t that be a good outcome?

There is the problem you note in the book of how Government must be seen to do something, as soon as an issue arises. The danger is the first time something goes wrong under devolved responsibilities, the immediate clamour for a response means the drawbridge is pulled back up.

One of the problems we have is that we try to devolve responsibility whilst leaving the accountability very murky. Greater Manchester is about to get more control over healthcare, for example – so is the Mayor to be clearly held to account for those decisions? There’s a need, if we’re going to lock devolution in, for some very clear lines of accountability. That’s why, with the idea of elected mayors in cities – I think the public need someone to sack, if something goes wrong. It’s got to be a model where ultimately I, as a member of the public, know who to sack.

How do you see this concept being received by our politicians? When you’re working with MPs, Council Leaders etc, do you get a sense that there is an appetite for these kinds of approaches & they want to encourage it?

I think there is some appetite. The Labour Party before the election was having a debate about devolution – not always a very ambitious one, but it was happening. The Co-op party seems to be becoming a little more assertive at the moment. MPs like Steve Reed & Stella Creasy who are quite loud voices who are absolutely on this agenda. The current leadership isn’t quite so sure, but although I don’t want to overstate it I think there is a grouping within Labour that do support this.

I think the LibDems have obviously got this as part of their DNA. But I think what’s interesting is if you look at the Tories: this very free market liberal version of devolution where we push power down, & once you’ve got it unless you completely mess it up we’re not going to be too worried about what the outcome is. I think the Conservative laissez faire approach to devolution – it’s much more leave this to the market, create the right pressures on people, cut the budgets & let’s see things change. So there’s a group within Labour that are actively pushing for this, whereas the Conservatives are creating an enabling framework for it but I think their approach is a lot more laissez faire –they’re much more comfortable with local variation.

The book has several examples of community projects, movements & activism, including commons libraries, timebanking and so on, often based on a grass roots or localised response to a need. Do you think this is a growing phenomenon?

That’s the really big question for this agenda. Can lots of small interventions eventually take over & overwhelm the old ways of doing things? That’s what I hope is going to happen, & I think there’s some evidence that we should be enthusiastic about that. There’s a huge amount of social innovation going on out there at the moment; the number of co-ops has shot up by over 25% during the last couple of years. It’s absolutely clear that the social enterprise movement is growing & thriving. I think there’s a combination of things going on here. One is necessity – definitely people are starting social enterprises to run things & we’re going to have to find ways to help residents take those over.

The key thing is social policy needs to support the emergence of these things, these mutuals. The question for me is what’s the role of government in fomenting that? Can government help drive that transition? I think we need to keep building that realm for social action, creating social capital, which will help us survive the dismantling of the welfare state. I think there’s lots of things government can do, certainly with the idea of creating local foundations which can help seed funding.

There are echoes there of Victorian era self-help groups, that communal approach to learning, although it’s obviously a very different world now.

There are critical differences between then & now – we’re a much more individual society, much more educated. & our technology is so much more advanced. It’s such a different society, but moving to a less organised & rigid approach to social provision is much more feasible now. In the book, in a light touch way, I try to link my argument to an understanding of how the economy is changing now. By 2025 it’s likely that more of us will be self-employed than working in the public sector. That’s symptomatic of the ways in which society is about to face new waves of automation, of a society where many more of us are moving into more casual forms of work. We need a state that reflects that reality, no the reality of the industrial cities of the 60s & 70s or that of the industrial revolution. One thing Jeremy Corbyn got right is the extension of statutory maternity pay to self-employed women. That’s a recognition of the way the world is changing.

Although the point I make in the book is that you wouldn’t need statutory maternity pay because everybody would receive a universal basic income, which would make it easier to manage what for many of us will become short periods of not working. But it will also give us more effort, thought & time to put into the commons – my vision of the commons is not one in which we all just kind of contribute out of the goodness of our hearts & nothing else changes, it’s a world in which people are paid to make careers & receive a basic income which allows them to make that contribution to the commons.

Universal basic income is another idea that is undergoing a renaissance at the moment – the examples in Utrecht & elsewhere, other commentators such as Matthew Taylor advocating it – there seems to be a general acknowledgement from the Left & the Right identified that it’s an idea worth revisiting.

The welfare system is predicated on the assumption that anyone who wants to can get a job & stay in a job for the rest of their lives. If you don’t have a job you’re probably morally defective in some way, so we’re going to push you in to taking the next thing that comes along, & we’re going to punish & sanction you if you don’t conform to the way we want you to behave. It strikes me that in a society where being unemployed is not a moral failing but is something that happens to most of us frequently, between jobs, working short contracts etc – the welfare system that says that unemployment is somehow a personal failing is just so wide of the mark, ordinary people are going to start recognising it. & as you said this is an idea that’s had substantial interest from both Left & Right. For the Left it’s about redistribution, on the Right – it provides a much simpler way of managing the welfare budget, strips out all the various contortions, removes the need for managing the benefits system, obviates benefit fraud almost entirely. So there’s lots to like from both sides of the spectrum.

I suppose the question will be how much should a minimum income be. It’s been suggested that a full living income would require a flat tax of about 45%. It’s a big ask to move to 45% flat rate, but we should have that debate. There are lots of serious economists who look at what’s going to happen, particularly with automation, for example anything up to half of the American workforce could be automated out of a job in the next few years. It’s not clear that new technology is creating more jobs than its destroying this time. & we’re going to have to have a societal conversation about what we’re going to do about that.

Hopefully this book is part of that wider conversation

I hope so. Its particular focus is on government & government policy, & it’s a narrow book in that sense. I don’t put forward a giant blueprint for the future of British society! When I was writing it & particularly afterwards with books from Steve Hilton, Paul Mason, Adam Lent has a book coming out later in the year about how small is powerful – it’s one of those emergent moments when it feels a whole bunch who work in quite different worlds have all come to similar conclusions. Gillian Tett’s “The Silo Effect” is a part of the same story – a world in which expertise in silos is much less important than holistic working & learning. & that’s part of the source code of what I’ve written as well.

It feels to me more of a book about change, not a “grand theoretical narrative”. There’s a passion to your book that isn’t always the case in this type of writing.

There is a real sense that national politics in this country & internationally has become exhausted. & meanwhile out in the rest of the world people are sitting there saying “well hang on, how is this making any difference to me & my life?”

The Westminster world has become such an impervious bubble, & it’s clear to me that it’s not working for most people in this country anymore. One of the biggest lesson from the crash in 2008 is centralised top down paternalistic government isn’t delivering the goods. It can’t guarantee economic growth; it can’t guarantee good jobs; it can’t guarantee decent levels of social protection. & in that world you have to look elsewhere for hope & social progress.

There are lots of reasons to be excited about what’s going on around us, answers that are emerging to challenges. That’s where I see the energy, the drive, & the hope at the moment. If you’re a progressive, if you want to see the kind of world I describe in the book, you have to back & get behind those kind of responses. So if by joining a co-op, am I in a small way helping my neighbours & helping to create a better sort of society? It’s no longer “I turn up & vote & someone does it for me”. It’s “if I want it I’ve got to do it”. & the doing part is fundamental.

Rob Foster works as a head of policy in local government and is passionate about better futures for public services. Follow him on twitter @futuresinfinite and his regular blog is published at



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