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Government / Local politics

Devolution debates lead to unexpected shouting matches at Labour's autumn conference

The devolution of fiscal and political power to sub-national regions is not supposed to be the sort of thing anyone gets passionate about. Not once in centuries of democratic discourse have pulses quickened as the rallying cry goes up, “The Milton Keynes and Aylesbury Travel to Work Area (as defined in the ONS’s revised economic geography documentation) united shall never be divided”.

And yet, here we are, less than eight months away from a general election, and fringe meetings to discuss the topic at Labour’s autumn conference are standing room only, with excitable devolution fans forced to spill out into the corridors. The subject is arousing such intense emotion that said meetings are descending into shouting matches: about the correct way to break England into smaller units, about how to balance the needs of cities with those of rural areas, and about whether the Campaign for an English Parliament (which, with the best will in the world, seems to consist entirely of angry middle aged white men with southern accents) is guilty of entryism.

Let’s back up a bit. Devolution within England has been drifting up the agenda for a while, largely because of the sense that London was increasingly pulling away from the country that contains it, and over the summer there were a string of reports debating how to revive the country’s great industrial cities. Then last week the Scottish referendum happened: Scotland was promised a swathe of new powers, and the lack of any similar representation within England began to look increasingly untenable.

The Conservatives, motivated by partisan interest, want a new convention of “English votes for English laws” within the existing House of Commons. Labour, with motives almost exactly as pure, want something else, and are threatening a constitutional convention to debate what that might be.

So suddenly, after years of being ignored, the various interest groups campaigning for devolution feel like there’s everything to play for, and those fringe meetings are absolutely rammed. Pretty much everybody at them is in favour of pulling power out of Westminster; that, though, is as far as consensus goes. Here are the big faultlines:

1. Urban vs rural

The leading contenders for Labour’s favour are the “city regions”: giving more power to collections of councils covering the big conurbations and the places that serve as dormitory towns for them.

This, though, annoys those in smaller settlements, who worry that it’ll simply mean replacing domination by London with domination by, say, Manchester. As Cat Smith, Labour’s candidate for Lancaster and Fleetwood, told a meeting organised by the Hannah Mitchell Foundation (which campaigns for devolution to the north): “City regions might work for Manchester or Leeds. They won’t work for north Lancashire or Cumbria.”

(At roughly this point in proceedings, a man in a blue t-shirt cried out, “Why is democracy good enough for the Scots but not good enough for us?” Bafflement ensued.)

2. Statelessness

The next possibility is some form of regional government, perhaps based on Germany’s “lander” (states which were, in part, a British invention).

The powers-that-be have largely ignored this possibility, on the grounds of the 2004 referendum which rejected an elected assembly for the north-east. But some have interpreted this not as a rejection of regional government per se, but of a specific proposal for a talking shop so toothless it couldn’t even make transport policy.

The bigger problem, again, is one of contested identity. Lee Sherriff, Labour’s candidate for Carlisle, argued that her town, perched in the far north western corner of England, had more in common with places across the Pennines in Northumberland than with the big cities elsewhere in the north-west region. Others complained about lumping the “footballers’ wives” territory of Cheshire in with inner city Manchester. Regional government will inevitably mean pushing together places that don’t share an identity or economic links, and there’s not much you can do to stop it.

(“Absolute nonsense!” yelled the man in a blue T-shirt, when someone suggested regional government.)

3. The not-so-silent majority

The Hannah Mitchell Foundation has largely evaded these issues by provisionally proposing a single “greater north” region, covering the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire (although it remains open to other options). This would contain no fewer than five city regions, which might please those who remain terrified of imperial dominance by Manchester.

Someone it didn’t please, however, was the chap in the blue T-shirt, who had a London accent, turned out to be from the Campaign for an English Parliament, and insisted on making noisy objections whenever anyone proposed any form of devolution other than his. His concern, he said, was the need for solidarity with poor communities in the south. But something akin to nationalism also seemed to be in play: if Scotland (population 5m) can have its own parliament, why shouldn’t England (population 53m)?

Campaign image from the Campaign for an English Parliament.

The chair let him have his say, then attempted to move the conversation on, but was stymied by the fact that everyone she turned to for comments afterwards seemed to have come from the very same campaign group. The extent to which they had planned this was not exactly clear, but nonetheless, the result was a lot more shouting than you’d expect at an event with the anodyne title, “Northern Democracy? Yes, please!”

These sorts of arguments are clearly bothering the shadow infrastructure minister Lord Adonis. As he told a separate meeting (this one hosted by Policy Network) the next morning: “The biggest problem with devolution is that, because you cannot see the completed picture at the end, you therefore don’t start.” His fear, in other words, is that policymakers will spend so long worrying about what to do about Cumbria that they don’t let Manchester get on with it.

Adonis’s “growth review” was one of those reports promising to turbocharge city regions that appeared over the summer, and, in his view, the case for devolution is more about infrastructure than identity. The transport network in much of the country is falling to bits, he argued, and it’s simply not possible to micromanage its restoration by drawing lines on maps in London.

More than that, the national government has a nasty habit of cutting capital spending during recessions (unlike when you cut services, this doesn’t immediately cost you jobs, so you can get away with it for a surprisingly long time before your country breaks). Sub-regional governments are closer to the projects in question, and more likely to grasp the importance of keeping them on the table: by way of example, Adonis highlighted the way that successive London mayors from both sides of the aisle have fought tooth and nail to protect Crossrail.

To that end, he said he’d favour devolving much greater powers to the five existing combined authorities: these, added to London, contain a third of England’s population and half of its economy. After that, he’d favour beefed up county councils or, if the regions in question preferred, groups of them.

This would mean a mix of different type of regions – some based on traditional counties, some on modern economic units. It’d mean a mix of identities, too. But, Adonis argued, the current obsession with issues of identity is a sign that we’ve failed to explain the practical benefits. “If the devolution offer is big enough, if the incentives are big enough, I suspect the geographical problems can be sorted out a lot quicker than people have anticipated.”

Whatever model eventually emerges from these rows, and the parallel ones which will no doubt happen at the Tory conference next week, it does feel like devolution’s moment might finally have arrived. The key now will be to translate this into action before this energy dissipates once again. How the men from the Campaign for an English Parliament feel about that, of course, remains to be seen.
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