Richard Leonard: Power must be transferred to the people after Brexit

After Brexit, the UK should create a more federal system which locks in devolution but also change the balance of power in the workplace, writes Richard Leonard.

Within the last five years, the people of Scotland have voted in two referendums on matters of huge significance for the future of our country. I believe it is essential that in navigating our way beyond the outcomes, we must plot a course to bring some stability.

In those referendums, I campaigned for Scotland to remain in the UK and for the UK to remain in the EU. But I did not campaign for the status quo. I do think the relationship between the nations of the UK is imbalanced and I do want to see the end of Tory rule from Westminster.

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It will come as no surprise that I believe to my core that the best way to get rid of the Tories is to elect a Labour Government with Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, investing in our communities and our industries again. Despite its obvious challenges, we do have an opportunity after Brexit to build that progressive society. Austerity is not inevitable, the status quo is not inevitable, we write the future ourselves.

The City of London wields too much power and influence at the expense of other parts of the UK (Picture: Steve Finn/Getty Images)The City of London wields too much power and influence at the expense of other parts of the UK (Picture: Steve Finn/Getty Images)
The City of London wields too much power and influence at the expense of other parts of the UK (Picture: Steve Finn/Getty Images)

The other consequence of Brexit is that it requires us to re-examine where power lies within the UK, and rebalance it so that Scotland becomes more of an equal partner. And we need to be able to discuss and debate these issues in an intelligent and informed way. One of the more frustrating aspects of the debates around independence and Brexit is how narrow they are; ideas for more radical models of how our society could be organised are pushed to the side.

As so often in politics, it is those who hold the most extreme views, and shout the loudest, who dominate the political and media landscape. There are some for whom the answer to every question is independence, just as there were those whose answer to everything was to leave the European Union. The dominance of these voices has made it harder to make actual, serious progress.

But at the heart of each lies a desire to take back control, and that is an impulse I understand. As a democratic socialist, I more than appreciate the drive and necessity to challenge power and authority. But I do not want the Labour Party to take power for its own sake, I want to take power so that we can give it away – to people in our communities. Because after a decade of austerity, our communities do not just need investment, they need more control and they need greater stability.

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Whether you voted Yes or No to independence, or Leave or Remain in the EU referendum, it is the right thing to do to ask how we can keep these sides together. It suits some to foster division, and therefore they find it easy to say we should abandon one side or the other. But that is not Labour’s way of doing things, and it is not my approach either. We are talking about neighbours, friends, family members. We have to find ways to unite our communities, not more ways of dividing them.

After all, the real division in our society is not between Scotland and England, it is between those who own the wealth and those who through their hard work create the wealth. That is the real division. Children living in poverty in Dundee are held back in exactly the same way as children living in poverty in Derby.

So we have to redistribute wealth, and power too. There is still a restlessness in Scotland about our place in the UK. The people of Scotland said no to independence in 2014. But, as we discuss the future, that does not mean the only choices open to us are independence or carry on as we are.

After Brexit, powers that were previously held in Europe are going to return to the UK. Powers over the environment, over agriculture, state aid, fishing, public procurement. We need to ensure that when those powers come back from Brussels, that they do not go to London, they come here.

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We have had devolution since 1999. There are many in the Tory Government, and in the senior ranks of the civil service too, who seem to have forgotten that.

I wrote in this newspaper in January about how we in Scotland need to recapture that spirit of ambition and hope that marked the establishment of the Scottish Parliament 20 years ago. There are powers we have now that we do not fully utilise.

The restlessness that many people feel here in Scotland exists in parts of England too. There is a genuine sense of grievance that London – perhaps more specifically, the financial City of London – wields too much power and influence, at the expense of other towns and cities.

As we negotiate our path beyond Brexit, we need answers to these questions that do not keep taking us back to the same old arguments and the same old divisions.

I believe that people are looking for real change and real democracy. That means real change in the balance of power where they work and where they live, and not simply the transfer of power from one Parliament, and one set of politicians, to another.

Brexit calls for us to look afresh at the constitutional nature of the UK. A more federal Britain, locking in and strengthening devolution, and redistributing power so that it is not concentrated but dispersed, and so shared and utilised by the people for the people.

To do this, we will be required to think beyond the comfort of traditional thought and speak beyond the refuge of soundbites – not always easy for politicians to do, especially in the age of 24-hour news. But we have to ask and answer the questions about how our society is run and why, about how our political and economic system is run and in whose interests, about how we protect our environment and how we treat each other as human beings.

These are big questions and big challenges, but they are the very fundamental questions and challenges that the Labour Party was established to meet.