If 2016 was the year of political earthquakes, then 2017 must be when the Left dusts itself down and gets on with the job of building something positive from the rubble.
The arrival of devolution in England this May presents us with the right opportunity at the right time. The health of our democracy and the good of our society demand we grab it with both hands.
Over the last 20 years, where power has been devolved from Westminster, it has worked. The voices of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London have all got stronger. The downside is that the voice of the rest of England has felt increasingly drowned out.
The referendum result can be interpreted as meaning many things. But one, undoubtedly, was a profound cry for change in the way this country works from parts of England long neglected by its Establishment.
The trouble with our centralised political system is that the London perspective on life dominates the national policies it produces. Over the last 30 years, Westminster has conspicuously failed to provide convincing answers to a Northern half of the country struggling with de-industrialisation.
When the North needed help with manufacturing, Westminster was pushing the service sector and the “knowledge economy”. When the North needed modern technical education, national policy was exclusively focused on the university route. When it needed better public transport, the Whitehall obsession with deregulation gave it a failed free-for-all in bus services. And when the North needed modern homes to rent, Westminster was only interested in promoting owner-occupation.
Devolution in England is our chance to break out of this dysfunctional mould. It is the Left’s chance to get closer to people again, to find our voice and provide practical answers to the injustices of the modern world that are based on hope and not on hate.
As we go into 2017, this is where our energy should be focused.
If Greater Manchester, Merseyside, West Midlands and Teesside can make something of devolution, that will strengthen the hand of more places to demand the same. And the more that other areas come on board, the greater the chance of rebalancing this country permanently from South to North.
So there is a lot riding on what happens over the next year. We will all need your help to win our campaigns and create a strong progressive mandate for change.
My judgement is that devolution in England will only work if it does two things.
First, we must use it to open up politics to a much wider range of voices and be ready to do things very differently. Let’s call time on the old closed-shop, top-down culture in parts of local government. Let’s forge a new relationship with the voluntary sector, as a partnership of equals, and truly unlock its potential to improve services and change lives.
Second, we must show real ambition for what we want to achieve. People will not see the point of devolution – or of voting in the mayoral elections – if it just involves tinkering at the edges or softening the blow of what comes out of Westminster. Instead, we need a radical vision that offers a real break with Westminster and its right-of-centre orthodoxy.
That could mean forging a new relationship with business and a willingness to be much more interventionist than Westminster has ever been. If we are serious about bringing new industry to the North, we will need to put money behind building stronger networks between businesses, universities and colleges.
The clearest illustration of our break with Westminster orthodoxy will be on young people. Westminster has made them its targets for cuts; in Greater Manchester, they will be our priority for investment. The vision will be to make this the best place to grow up. No child who needs mental health support will be turned away. All children will get direct help at age 16 to get on life. This is because the best investment policy in an uncertain economic world is one which helps our young people fulfil their potential.
But we also want a Greater Manchester that helps everyone get on. That means freeing it from Westminster’s housing crisis. So we will help our councils and housing associations build more affordable homes to rent and pile pressure on unscrupulous, absent private landlords who ruin people’s lives and drag down their communities. Here, we won’t accept that rough sleeping is an inevitable fact of modern life; our mission as a city-region will be to eradicate it.
Greater Manchester will also be the best place to grow old. So we will reject the Westminster default position of treating social care as a poor relation and easy prey for privatisation. Greater Manchester will lead a revolution in the way we care for older people, banishing the 15-minute visit culture and building the country’s first fully-integrated public National Health and Care Service.
With these policies, our goal will be to make Greater Manchester a beacon of social justice that stands out against a harsh Tory England. If we succeed, it can help lead the revival of the Left with a new practical, progressive politics.
Our success will depend on how far we are ready to break with the past and do things differently. So, to put flesh on these policy bones, we are currently running a large consultation – the Our Manifesto exercise – with the explicit goal of a manifesto for Greater Manchester, written by the people of Greater Manchester.
In its history, this place has been good at ripping up the rule-book.
In the 19th century, it was the birthplace of the trades union movement which helped working people break into Parliament. In the last century, it was the home of the Suffragette movement which struck the biggest blow for equality that this country has ever seen.
Now, in the 21st century, Greater Manchester has the chance to shake up the Establishment once again, by leading the charge to bring power back to the communities that Westminster has left behind.
2016 is over. It is time to let its arguments and divisiveness die with it. The fight-back starts now. Consider this your open invitation to come to Manchester this year, to join our campaign and play your part in the rebalancing of our country and the renewal of our politics.