Power to the People: A roadmap for subsidiarity

By Liam Payne

The concept of subsidiarity has recently re-emerged as a forceful idea among the labour movement left in the UK. In response to seemingly incessant rising national and regional tensions within the old UK state construct, the left has begun to champion subsidiarity again as a progressive solution to these issues.

With the continued hegemony of the SNP in Scotland, certain polls recently showing growing support for Welsh independence, the emergence of the irreverent Northern Independence Party, and the very visible crumbling of the old certainties of party loyalty across the country, subsidiarity offers a vision of a future democratic settlement on a UK level that could reflect certain important tenets of the democratic socialist ideal that still ideologically drives the labour movement left in this country.

Subsidiarity, in short, is the idea that power should be devolved from the centre to the most logical and local level. The central state should only perform the tasks that conceivably cannot adequately be conducted locally or regionally. It is apparent from this basic outline that subsidiarity has the nascent prospects to challenge – from the left – the nationalism, right-wing populism and general apathy and feelings of under-representation that seemingly dominate the current UK political climate. While campaigns such as Radical Federalism are beginning to flesh this concept out in debate and proposals, the current vision for the alternative of subsidiarity is still rather vague and lacking in a more holistic plan for what would be envisaged under this rubric.

In his 1989 book Livingstone’s Labour: A Programme for the Nineties, Ken Livingstone sketched a broad outline of what subsidiarity could look like in concrete measures, enacted by a radical Labour government. Livingstone is currently something of a persona non grata on the broader left in Britain, after ill-judged comments made in 2016 in the early stages of the gathering anti-Semitism controversy that would engulf and hamstring the Corbyn movement along with the prospects for a radical Labour government committed to expanding democracy, and with it, subsidiarity. In a chapter titled Glasnost UK, Livingstone sets out the preliminary details of a functioning and far-reaching UK-wide policy of devolution and subsidiarity. For that reason, it is still worth considering today.

A roadmap

Stemming from the debates surrounding the Charter 88 movement, Livingstone’s 1989 book offers proposals which he felt necessarily went beyond the limits of that movement. Seeking to enshrine any democratic gains stemming from such proposals in an overarching ‘constitutional settlement’, Livingstone firstly stresses the importance of compiling a UK Bill of Rights. Like its American counterpart, this would codify basic rights and liberties. He suggests this should be solely in the interests of the citizenry, and not private property or wealth. This Bill of Rights should include:

  • Freedom of speech and publication, except in cases of ‘incitement to racial hatred’.
  • Freedom of access to information, and the prohibiting of any ‘censorship or restrictive control’ of this resource by powerful vested interests.
  • Freedom from discrimination.
  • The right to a free and fair trial by jury.
  • The right to peaceful assembly and to travel freely (with particular reference to the tactics used by the state in the 1984-85 miners’ strike).
  • The right to privacy.
  • An untouchable Freedom of Information Act.
  • The inalienable right to universal basic services for every UK citizen, such as healthcare and education.
  • The re-establishment of full trade union rights.

Livingstone follows this up by directly tackling the subjects of devolution and general subsidiarity in a UK context. He lambasts the failure of Labour governments up to that point to properly grasp the potential of this. Back in 1989, Livingstone ably recognises the ‘economic and cultural’ differences within the unitary UK state, plus the fact that the centralised state can clearly no longer capably administer and engage with these differences. He states:

“Labour should welcome the cultural differences between regions, accept the principle that government is best conducted closest to the community, and implement a major shift of real power down to directly elected regional parliaments and local councils.” (p.73).

For starters, central government should have its power limited to:

“[…] matters of defence, foreign affairs, macroeconomic policy, the redistribution of wealth from rich to poor areas and the setting of national minimum standards for the provision of all public services and the protection of the environment.” (p.73).

He calls for devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales, since implemented by the 1997 Labour government, and for certain constituent regions of England to also gain regional devolved assemblies. Similar to the proposals in Alex Niven’s New Model Island, Livingstone selects these regional divisions on very real historical and cultural divergences in the English landscape. Separate devolved administrations should be established in the following manner: Northern; North West; Yorkshire; East Midlands; West Midlands; South West; East Anglia; Greater London; South Coast; and ‘the corridor between Bristol and Heathrow’.

Livingstone posits that this proposal would create twelve new devolved parliaments – ten regional and two national – with civic populations of between 2 and 7 million at the time of writing. Each region should also contain a lower level of single tier council administration within the regional structure. Within this new devolved settlement, Livingstone proposes to implement the principle of subsidiarity:

“The local council should be responsible for the provision of virtually all the services that the individual requires, including housing, education, health, police, social services and social security. The regional parliaments’ main responsibilities would be transport, industrial regeneration and training, environmental protection, the provision of public utilities such as water, electricity and gas, to legislate on regional matters, and the provision of those elements of policing, education and health care which are only economic on a regional scale.” (p.74).

He adds the caveat that these ideas for subsidiarity-in-practice are only “indicative not exhaustive.”

Revenue streams could be established through the creation of a local progressive income tax under the auspices of local councils. The national and regional administrations could levy additional taxes, which would be collected locally and passed upwards. This would create a one-sum tax bill for citizens, but this would be clearly delineated between local, regional and national states, thus allowing the citizen to gauge the value of each tax to the provision of civic and democratic life. All public servants in this system should be employed full-time, with their own staff and facilities, and the number of MPs resident at Westminster would decline concomitantly.

In addition to this radical democratisation of the state, Livingstone recognises the very real danger of simply shifting undemocratic bureaucratic practices from a national to a regional and local level. Therefore, he also proposes to further increase the subsidiarity function in his plans by devolving power and control to workers and consumers. Livingstone points out how Thatcherism opportunistically exploited grievances about the paternalistic welfare state settlement that had been the cornerstone of all UK governments since the end of WWII. By supposedly offering individuals greater freedom in housing and schools for instance, she tapped into this powerful feeling of stasis in British society, which had boiled over as the 1970s progressed.

To outflank this mirage on the left, Livingstone proposes that public housing, when built, should be passed to the control of resident cooperatives, with an elected local committee running these. Schools should be administered by committees of parents, teachers and pupils. The establishment of workers, consumers, and joint cooperatives across industries and services would give real democratic control over important economic and social areas to the providers and the receivers of these services – the real ‘wealth creators’.

Overarching this local and regional agenda, Livingstone calls for the establishment of an elected second chamber at the national level, comprising representatives of the regional and national parliaments, to replace the undemocratic and aristocratic House of Lords. This would all be codified in a written constitution, disabling the ability of any future national government to undo these reforms. Fixed-term parliaments should be introduced under this, and any constitutional amendments would need to be ratified by a majority in the House of Commons, and either a national plebiscite, or a majority of regional representatives in the newly-created elected second chamber.  


Since 1989, devolution and subsidiarity have appeared to a limited degree in Britain. The establishment of a national parliament in Scotland, and national assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland is the most prominent example of this. City and metro mayors, the London Assembly and directly elected Police and Crime Commissioners in England are further gains in this creeping advance. The Conservative Party even introduced a very loose Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011, while the dominant partner in a coalition government, although three UK general elections in six years illustrate the severe limitations of this provision. However, the defeat in a local referendum for the establishment of a regional assembly in England’s North East in 2004, combined with the continued savaging of the powers and finances of local councils across the UK, show that the progress of this process is not a foregone conclusion.

The Corbyn-led Labour Party included important advances in general devolution and the principle of subsidiarity in both its 2017 and 2019 election manifestos. Their general commitment to regionally and locally controlled democratic investment initiatives, and the vigorous promotion of cooperatives in industry and commerce, are welcome advances on the current curtailed version devolution – largely a political exercise, especially in the English context.

The recent publication of the Remaking the British State report, commissioned by the Labour Party when under left-wing control across the UK, shows the depth of consideration these issues engendered in the highest echelons of the movement. Welsh Labour recently recorded its best ever Welsh Assembly election result under the control of the party’s left-wing, and on a platform containing achievements and further plans for enhanced political and economic democracy.

These initiatives should be combined with the more grassroots work of groups like Radical Federalism and Momentumin Wales and England, and the Campaign for Socialism and Red Paper Collective in Scotland – not to mention the considerable muscle of the currently dominant left in the trade union movement – in an attempt to progress the concept and political efficacy of subsidiarity.

This effort will of course come up against the usual repugnant obstructions and obfuscations by the perennial right-wing MPs, MSPs, councillors and party bureaucrats currently in the ascendancy within the Labour Party after the leadership victories of Keir Starmer in the UK party, and Anas Sarwar in Scottish Labour. In this struggle, the labour movement left should look at the relatively long history of thought on the idea of subsidiarity in the UK state, and draw confidence and knowledge from these worthy endeavours.

Liam Payne is a Labour Party member based in Edinburgh.

Image: The Parliament of the United Kingdom. Source: The British Parliament and Big Ben.Author: Maurice from Zoetermeer, Netherlands, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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