Anyone looking for definitive policy commitments at Labour Party Conference this week would have left Brighton feeling disappointed. The new Labour leadership deliberately eschewed any attempt to pin the party down on a whole range of specifics, announcing instead a series of major reviews into big institutions like the Treasury and the Bank of England, and into particular policy areas, like housing and devolution.
But when Parliament resumes in two weeks’ time policy decisions will be required, not least on the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which is at the top of the Government’s legislative agenda. Fortunately for the Party, and for those of us who want to see it become law, a vote for the Bill is entirely in keeping with the new approach to policymaking set out by Corbyn this week, and is also vital to him achieving some of his broader aims. Here’s why:
1) Labour needs to re-gain the initiative on supporting growth across the country
Across the Conference fringe this week Labour spokespeople and members lamented the fact that they had been outflanked by the Conservative’s Northern Powerhouse initiative, and that it was imperative that Labour takes back territory that has traditionally belonged to the party. This critique has led the new Shadow Communities Secretary, Jon Trickett, to launch a Constitutional Convention, promising months of town hall meetings and consultation to arrive at a more ‘community-driven’ and comprehensive plan for devolution.
Initiating a wide ranging conversation with localities across the country may help demonstrate that Labour is ready to change and do more on devolution – but not if the national party has just voted to essentially veto the current moves to push power down to city-regions and counties across the country.
Substantial devolution to the likes of Greater Manchester, the North East Combined Authority and the Sheffield City Region in this Parliament now depend upon the passing of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. Whatever the nuances involved, a vote against the legislation would therefore cement the national Labour Party’s position as being fundamentally opposed to handing more powers to regional cities across the country, and hand sole control of the agenda to George Osborne for the foreseeable future.
2) Devolution will help Labour deliver on the promise of building a national movement for change, and prove it can govern
Jeremy Corbyn’s main aim this week has been to demonstrate his party is capable of providing strong and compelling opposition to the Conservative Government in Westminster, while transforming Labour into a national movement capable of bringing about change to the UK. Yet the party’s ability to do that from the opposition benches in Westminster is limited. Labour’s best chance of energising community activism and re-building their electoral base across the country over the coming years lies in achieving change in local government, where it already leads the majority of the country’s major towns and cities.
Local Labour leaders have made strong progress on city devolution in recent years against a very difficult fiscal environment, and the national party should support them to go further. Voting for the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, and supporting Labour city leaders in securing more powers over housing, transport, job creation and skills, is the best way for Labour to enhance the impact that the party can have on people’s lives over the coming five year period and beyond – as well as demonstrating to the electorate that the party is capable of governing come 2020.
3) The Bill does not force an approach on any area – it is deliberately generic and non-proscriptive
The common complaints levelled at the Government’s approach to devolution at Conference were that it represents a ‘top-down’ imposition on local areas that is being applied unevenly across the country, and that it is more about passing the buck on making cuts than it is about supporting growth.
Yet the reality is that these are concerns that relate to the Government’s policy and fiscal agendas, not the detail of the Bill itself. Despite the name, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act does not actually mandate any particular model or criteria for devolution for any particular part of the country. The Government may have adopted a clear position (one set out in their winning manifesto at the 2015 General Election) that significant devolution will only be available to places that adopt a combined authority and Mayor, but the legislation itself simply sets out the legal changes that are required to allow combined authorities to take on additional functions, and for them to be led by a single, directly accountable individual – things they cannot presently do.
Labour can continue to oppose the Government’s fiscal and policy agendas, but in practice a vote against the Bill would only serve to constrain the kinds of governance models that local areas can legally choose to pursue in the future.
Ben Harrison is Director of Partnerships at the think tank Centre for Cities