The politics of devolution: how Labour can reclaim it

13th November, 2015 2:52 pm

town hall

By Mike Buckley and Jane Thomas  

Dan Jarvis in his recent speech to IPPR North argued that the ‘devolution debate represents perhaps the greatest opportunity to remake the State and empower people for a generation’. Dan’s right – and if you missed his speech it lays out a far more well developed vision of a Northern Powerhouse than Osborne’s and deserves a read.

Two things remain. The first is this – most people just aren’t interested in devolution. Despite the major changes proposed across the North few people seem enthused by the idea of another tier of government or remotely concerned that we have a highly political chancellor making devolution policy without authority or accountability. If devolution is going to succeed and be truly democratic we need to find ways to engage people in the process. The Tories’ top down, piecemeal, approach makes this hard but also provides an opportunity – if they won’t do the democratic engagement we can. A pilot run by the Electoral Reform Society has shown how this can elicit interesting results – a scaled up version could generate the support and engagement devolution needs.

The second is this – the politics matters. We let the politics escape us in Scotland and suffered the consequences. We need to keep a handle on the politics in England both regionally and nationally. Devolution is Labour territory that has been stolen from under our noses by the Tories – we need to claim it back.

We know the history. Frustrations around a Westminster-centric system and growing regional inequality have never coalesced into a demand for devolution in England. There is absolutely no appetite for it. Even the good people of the North East gave it a resounding thumbs down in 2004. We politicos have taken more of an interest since the Scottish referendum, recognising that the electorate is fragmenting and voting patterns with it. Even the Conservatives have recognised the economic necessity and political opportunity despite having led all the anti-devolution campaigns back in the noughties – but the public remain largely unaware or disinterested.

When Osborne stood up in Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry and announced the country’s need for a Northern Powerhouse he spoke about rebalancing the economy and devolution. He didn’t mention his desire to devolve responsibility for cuts and rehabilitate the Tory brand in the north. It is too easy to dismiss the Northern Powerhouse as simply a ruse to gather Tory votes in the North but we would be short-sighted to deny that it’s part of their thinking. While the Tories can just about rely on the Midlands and South for a majority their need to retain and increase Tory seats in Yorkshire and Lancashire remains – hence the on-off railway upgrades and other sweeteners. Even if the Tories fail to gain ground in the North we cannot be complacent.  UKIP are diminished nationally but cost us seats last May, while some believe an SNP of the North could displace us.

A regional party remains unlikely but we were nevertheless slow to recognise both opportunity and threat in Scotland and England after the Scottish referendum. The Tories within hours of the result were talking about English Votes for English Laws, an English parliament and devolution to cities. Not only have the Tories stolen our clothes but in late 2015 our response remains indistinct (admittedly we’ve had things on) while Osborne is powering ahead with his offer of money and limited responsibilities to selected cities in an attempt to show he means business. Osborne is canny enough to know that as cuts approach cash-strapped local authorities have to make hard choices as they seek to protect services for the most vulnerable. For Labour councils this is a double-edged sword – take the deals, the power and today’s offer of money in the knowledge that they come as a package with elected mayors and future cuts.

The proposed deal for Sheffield City Region is a case in point. The offered £30 million a year could create opportunities to develop needed skills training, transport and strategic planning but the model is based on an assumption that new business development will create growth and fiscal independence from Whitehall. There is no social dimension in Osborne’s vision and no true ability to develop a vibrant local or regional economy.

In governance terms the wisdom of creating a body that covers South Yorkshire with bits of other counties instead of a Yorkshire-wide deal seems lacking. Despite the Region being intended as a single unit the elected Mayor will have authority only over the South Yorkshire authority areas, leaving the added on parts of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire to their own devices. If this sounds confusing on paper it could be even more confused in practice and may not lead to the vibrant economic region we’ve been promised.

So where does this leave us? Most developed nations have a clear and universal system of local and regional governance that works in partnership with national government rather than our patchwork and incomplete system. Osborne’s vision is piecemeal, politically motivated and lacks a social dimension or integration with a national industrial strategy – hence the madness of a government committed to a Northern Powerhouse standing aside as major industries in Redcar and Scunthorpe go to the wall. The loss of jobs is tragic. The loss of infrastructure surely essential to the development of a northern economy is pure vandalism.

Yet the devolution deals, while imperfect, do create an opportunity to talk about devolution more broadly. The need to resolve frustrations in Scotland, Wales and even England as EVEL proposals are debated adds even greater weight to the question of what devolution is for and what it is supposed to address. Sheffield council and others are absolutely right to conclude that while these may not be the deals we would have chosen they are the only ones on the table and should be considered – devolution sadly cannot wait for the election of a Labour government.

We need to take back the initiative on ground that is rightfully ours. We should develop Jon Trickett’s proposed constitutional convention and be clear about its purpose and outcomes. We should use this opportunity to look at House of Lords reform, proportional representation, a Bill of Rights and reform of voter registration – decoupling it from boundary reviews. A radical agenda with clear, tangible outcomes for local economies and communities should be part of our offer as we approach 2020 and could help us win back natural allies in Scotland, the North and areas like the South West that have been overlooked thus far. The Tories’ lack of ambition and inability to integrate an industrial and employment strategy with true devolution of power and fiscal autonomy provides us with an opportunity that we should take.

This is our agenda and our ground. It’s time to reclaim it.

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