Labour is clearly in favour of decentralising. We have a track record of meaningful actions in this matter. And there is a clear democratic socialist reason for doing so.
In the House of Commons, my team and I recently led for Labour on the Government’s Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill which will open a pathway to more power being handed over to some councils.
The proposal to devolve power is of course a welcome one to Labour which pioneered decentralisation with the creation of a Parliament in Scotland, an assembly in Wales and a Mayor of London.
But the government’s proposals are weak because they retain centralised fiscal control in the Treasury, and at a time of austerity the problem is that this will feel more like the delegation of tory cuts to local decision-makers rather than the devolution of real power and authority. The government’s Bill also involved the top-down imposition of a particular form of governance (so-called Metro Mayors) rather than allowing local communities to decide how they want to be governed.
Nonetheless, many councils may well decide to proceed along the track of seeking more devolution. But quite simply the current Bill isn’t ambitious enough, and we will need to go much further. In the end political change of this scale is the only route to tackling the gross social and economic inequalities that scar our country.
The arguments for this go way beyond the correct but limited traditional argument that we need to redress the balance of political power between local communities and the central state. Devolving power would end the current centralisation of decision making in the hands of an elite few in the Cities of London and Westminster. Putting decisions closer to the people will go hand in hand with the pursuit of Labour’s wider historic mission of economic and social justice.
The United Kingdom is one of the most centralised countries in the world. It is also one of the most unequal. These two facts are interlinked.
On the question of centralisation, 72% of all public expenditure is directly controlled by David Cameron and his Ministers in Whitehall. In France and Germany the situation is reversed with most government spending being determined at regional or local level. Indeed Chancellor Merkel decides on less than 20% of Germany’s total budget.
Meanwhile, inequality is now at a historically high level. The richest 10% own almost half of all the wealth in the country (44%). Whilst the combined property of poor plus middle Britain (50% of the population) amounts to less than a tenth of all wealth.
In Britain, this inequality is often regional in character. The further an area is from central London, by and large, the weaker the local economy is likely to be. For example, every region outside London and the South East grew more slowly than the UK average during the last Parliament and on current trends that this will be true over the next two parliaments as well. In my own region of Yorkshire and the Humber the latest figure for gross economic value added per head at less than £20,000 is about half the comparable figure for London.
Not surprisingly, given this lopsided economy no less than 44% of all graduates end up in London.
Whether you look at figures regarding life expectancy, productivity, GCSE success, transport expenditure, poverty, prevalence of disease and skill levels, the rest of England fares badly when compared with London and the South East. So much talent, enterprise and potential is going to waste across the length and breadth of this green and pleasant land of ours.
Labour’s answer to this regionalisation of poverty and disadvantage cannot be a crude North versus South politics. It needs to be more complex response involving devolution of power from a closed elite circle which runs the country in its own interests rather than in those of the wider population.
Labour celebrates the success and dynamism of those more prosperous areas in the south of England. We also know that there are significant pockets great need throughout the south and obviously in London.
Nonetheless our economy would be so much stronger if the same success could be emulated in the all of our regions. Our political culture and structures would be enriched if power was more distributed. And the interests of social and economic justice would more likely be secured if power and control were wrested away from the hands of the tiny British Establishment.
Jeremy Corbyn’s victory as leader of the Labour Party was based on three policy pillars: a new role for Britain in the World, a challenge to the prevailing and failing economic orthodoxy, and a renewed, more participative democracy. He gave me the task of combining the Communities and Local Government portfolio with stimulating a debate about a new Constitutional settlement.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that in the interests of creating a more just country the present political structures will have to change dramatically. The Government’s Cities and Devolution Bill offers a small faltering stepping stone in the direction of change. But if there was, for example, a powerful Council of the North, or an Assembly in the South West or in the East of England with real financial and political authority, would they not certainly begin to tackle the asymmetrical economic, social and political arrangements which have plagued our country for centuries?
The government’s Bill fails miserably to meet the bigger challenge. How could it be otherwise? The Tories are the political wing of the closed circle which runs Britain. Our task is to show a way out of the present political cul-de-sac into which the country has been led.
Jon Trickett is MP for Hemsworth and Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary