Ann Coffey MP chaired this week’s meeting of Labour for the Common Good group in Parliament – this is her report. You can read all reports of the meetings here.
They may not have reaped the electoral benefits, but there can be no mistaking the political intent of the Tories’ ‘Northern Powerhouse’ narrative. That the agenda is so clearly deficient only makes the political cheek more galling. But however hollow, we cannot grant them an open stage to pose as the only party interested in devolving power. We need our own credible, modern, socially just alternative.
This was the topic explored at this week’s meeting of Labour for the Common Good (a grouping of Labour MPs committed to debating the party’s future policy platform). The discussion opened with an excellent presentation from Jessica Studdert of the New Local Government Network, making the economic and social case for more devolution. She suggested there is a growing international evidence base which shows how a more decentralised approach to government correlates with stronger growth; more investment in physical and human capital; better educational outcomes; higher wellbeing; and less regional inequality. She also underlined how compared to other countries, the UK is a highly centralised outlier in terms of control over spending and revenue raising. And she pointed to significant funding gaps in the NHS and social care, persistent skills gaps in the economy and the poor performance of the Work Programme which indicate that current service models are not sustainable and need to be much better integrated around people and places.
The second speaker was Councillor Lib Peck, who grounded her presentation in the practical realities of leading Lambeth Council for Labour. She argued that the challenges of wrestling with Tory austerity had convincingly shown how local government can often spend money far more effectively than the central state. Less constrained by short-term ministerial tinkering and the ‘silo’ mentality of Whitehall departments, local authorities can join-up complimentary public services far more easily. The local state is also better at unlocking the benefits of innovation and collaboration, giving it a crucial edge when it comes to tackling Britain’s complex social problems.
Furthermore, she was keen to stress how councils and local Labour groups must play a pivotal role in political empowerment. This is absolutely right – the success of Jeremy Corbyn’s social movement surely depends on it being genuinely bottom-up. The best campaigns often appeal to a sense of community pride as a motivation for social action and a greater willingness to talk about it might help our political appeal. After all, we all need roots and a place we can call home.
Yet Lib’s presence on the panel was also a vivid reminder that we are experiencing something of a golden age for local Labour leadership, something that the subsequent discussion among MPs touched upon. The Tories harp on endlessly about working people but across the country it is Labour local authorities who protect their living standards amidst the austerity assault. Not only does this deserve our collective respect, it also shows why we should use our record in local government as a way of demonstrating our fitness for office. But more than that it highlights why the national party should also tap into the knowledge and insight of our councillors far more readily. Unlike myself and colleagues in Westminster, they must take daily decisions, in incredibly difficult circumstances, about the future of their community. It is a wealth of experience that we have overlooked far too often in recent years. So perhaps, as well as the country, we also should explore the possibility of a more decentralised Labour Party.
Of course it goes without saying that devolution should not be seen as panacea for all our social ills. Nor is it an alternative for progressive economic reform. In fact the clear challenge for a Labour agenda – present throughout the conversation – is how to square giving power away with effective redistribution. Simply allowing local authorities to raise their own revenues, for example, could deepen the very inequities we seek to eradicate. Yet like so much in this new political era perhaps we need to be bold and cast off the discredited old ways. As one MP put it: “The last time my area grew at the national level was in 1976. And various central government initiatives have failed to turn this around. How can we keep defending the status quo?”
Right across the country, Labour communities find themselves in a similar position. A modern devolution agenda can help to unlock their untapped potential and deliver for working people. And, at the same time, it can help thwart the Tories’ naked ambition to reach deep into Labour’s heartlands.
Ann Coffey is the Labour MP for Stockport