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Government / Local politics

It's time for Labour's leadership candidates to talk devolution

Even before Ed Miliband formally announced his resignation as leader of the Labour Party and departed stage left, the race to be his successor had begun. Soundings were taken, opinion pieces penned, and television appearances booked as a number of the prospective candidates sought to position themselves for the contest to come.

The leadership race will, of course, be dominated by debates of whether Labour has drifted too far to the left or not yet far enough. But it will also be characterised by a significant debate on whether Labour should seek to become the party of decentralisation and devolution within England – particularly for major city regions. Here’s why.

First, Labour leadership candidates will quickly need to come to terms with the reality of the central state that they are likely to inherit if victorious in 2020. They need to decide now whether they intend to spend the next five years as they did the last – opposing all Conservative cuts.

If the Conservatives deliver on their manifesto commitments to cut a further £30bn of public spending by 2018, it is very likely that the role of the state and the relationship between national and local government, and between government and the citizen, will have substantially changed.

Already the likes of Liz Kendall and Tristram Hunt have called for the party to find a renewed vision for the national economy, and the provision of public services, that does not simply rehash New or Old Labour, but is fit for purpose for the coming decade. This will be a key debate among the leadership candidates, not only in terms of the positioning of the party politically, but in terms of the practical approach to policymaking each seeks to advocate.

Decentralisation will almost certainly feature, both as an attempt to break free from Labour’s traditional “command and control” approach to policymaking, and as an explicit recognition that the central state simply cannot supply all of the solutions to the challenges faced by an increasingly complex and fragmented country.

There is also a strong likelihood that at least some of the candidates who are reluctant to oppose all of the Conservative’s austerity agenda will make the case that cuts can be more progressive – if power for implementing them is put into local hands.

However, making and winning these arguments will not be easy, as there remains an ideological debate within the party over whether decentralisation can ever be compatible with a desire to redistribute and maintain uniform standards of public service provision.

Several senior members of the party have previously voiced concerns over the idea that Labour could ever advocate for greater differentiation within public service provision between places – essentially creating the scope for a “postcode lottery”.  Perhaps the most vivid recent example of this was leadership contender Andy Burnham’s reaction to the Greater Manchester Devolution Deal.

Likewise, many within the party remain deeply sceptical of greater levels of local taxation and revenue retention, fearing that poorer areas would inevitably fall further behind.

And yet other leadership hopefuls take a different view. No doubt seeing it as complementary to a platform that promotes aspiration and growth, they argue that decentralisation is fundamental to freeing places to innovate, grow and as a result, improve the quality of life for their residents.

Finally, there’s the practical politics of the next five years to consider. On a night full of dreadful election results for Labour, the party’s results in major urban areas bucked, to a degree, the national trend: as this CityMetric article shows, Labour actually extended their electoral advantage in England’s big cities. In London, just under two thirds of MPs now belong to Labour, and the party saw similarly favourable swings in terms of voting percentage in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands.

Add in the fact that at a local level, Labour still retains control of most large urban councils, and it’s clear that big cities are the last great power base of the Labour Party. Any national political comeback for Labour must in some sense begin in these places, where their primary spokespeople and decision-makers are clustered.

And against a policy landscape where devolution to and within nations of the UK remains at the top of the agenda, in the short term at least it would make sense for Labour to prioritise passing power down to those places where it will best be able to exercise it.

Ben Harrison is director of partnerships at the Centre for Cities. This is an edited version of an article originally posted on the think tank’s blog.
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.