Politics can seem very complicated, but like most things, it is possible to simplify to some extent. How local, regional and national political bodies make decisions or collect and distribute money is fascinating and sometimes quite disturbing. It is an imperfect system but it is better than most. This is my attempt to explain some of the fundamentals of local, national and European politics and how they interact.
The British democratic system is the most centralist in Europe. That is, almost everything is controlled from London, even local government. The public sector needs funding to pay for the services it provides and that funding comes from taxation. You may think that your council tax is what funds local government, but the money raised in this way is not nearly enough to fund schools, police, local hospitals, etc. Local councils rely on funding from central government, the bulk of which comes in the form of a Revenue Support Grant (RSG). The level of RSG distributed to councils depends on their regional economy, so poorer councils receive higher RSG than the wealthier ones in the South East say.
British government is divided into two parts, central and local government. Central government is based in London and the elected members are known as Members of Parliament or MPs. MPs are responsible for creating the law, which forms our constitution. Local government is responsible for providing many public sector services, but not all and its elected members are known as councillors. I am one of those councillors.
The complicated part for the electorate knows which area of Government is responsible for what area of the public sector, which I will touch on later. One facet of an elected member’s work, whether that elected member is an MP, MEP or councillor is being a customer relationship manager. It is for the elected member to represent members of the public who for whatever reason need help understanding something about the system or is dissatisfied with the treatment meted out by the system. The complicated structure may be an explanation as to why so many say that they do not have a good understanding of “Politics”, which in turn low turnout rates at election time.
While it is true that, Britain is one of the most centralist states in Europe, this is changing. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland now have their own Assemblies (Their own parliaments) where they have their own policies on such things as education and health. One of the most visible differences between parliaments relates to University fees. Scottish students do not have to pay to go to University, but in 2013 English students have to take out a government loan of up to £9,000. Another example is that English people have to pay a set fee of £7.65 for medicine prescribed by their GP (Doctor), but residents of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not have to pay anything. Localism is the idea that communities should govern themselves as much as possible without interference from the state.
When there is a General Election, the national government can change. The General Election was in 2010 was ground-breaking as it signalled a weakness with the two party First Past The Post voting system with the result that the country witnessed the first coalition Government since 1940. The previous government (Labour) had a very relaxed attitude to immigration, but although it has brought many benefits, it has added to issues such as insufficient house construction during the last 30 years and also added to the strain on the services provided by local government. Even though people realize that this was because of the last government, they still blame it on the European Union, because free flow of citizens within Europe is one of the four freedoms of the EU. The fact that immigration has increased by 3 million people in the 10 years from 2004 to 2014 has contributed to a number of UK citizens becoming Eurosceptic.
The Structure of British Government
Government rules the country from London at Westminster Palace, which is also known as the Houses of Parliament and is alongside the River Thames. The country is divided into 650 political constituencies; each presided over by a Member of Parliament (MP). The election process called the “General Election” used to occur every 4 or 5 years, the exact date chosen by the ruling party at a time they would deem to be most advantageous for them to win an election. However, following the General Election of 2010, it was decreed that elections should be “Fixed Term” every 5 years, so the following General Election was held in 2015 and the next one will be held in 2020. They are always held on a Thursday, in the summer and generally in May. Political candidates can be affiliated to any political party they wish. The largest are the Conservatives and Labour (Due to the “First Past The Post” electoral system) but others such the Liberal Democrats, Green, UKIP, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru are gaining in popularity. The percentage turnout for General Elections has been declining for years and was only 66% of the voting population at the 2015 General Election. Anyone over the age of 18 years and not in prison is eligible to vote. To form a majority government the ruling party must have more than 50% of total MPs, that is more than 650 divided by 2. In 2010, this did not happen so for the first time in 60 years a coalition between two of the main political partied was formed. This was between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.
It is the MPs who make the law of the land by voting in “Bills” to create legislation, which forms our constitution. The constitution is a set of laws dictating how a country is governed. Unlike most modern states, Britain does not have a written constitution. Constitutions are the rules by which the state gains its power. They determine the structure of the state, the major state institutions, and the principles governing the relationship with each other and with the state’s citizens. Britain is unusual in that it has an ‘unwritten’ constitution and unlike the great majority of countries there is no single legal document that sets out in one place the fundamental laws outlining how the state works. Robert Blackburn has written a comprehensive document on th subject and asks “Whether Britain should now have a written constitution”. Click here… This is especially relevant during the country’s focus on a European referendum, because it concentrates the mind on what exactly the British public are voting to remain or leave.