Labour should spread power and fight austerity by promising “first ministers” for each of the English regions

23rd January, 2018 10:47 am

Our country is unequal and divided and a Labour government is the only cure. Austerity has opened up the fault lines between young and old, robbed women on every Budget day, hit ethnic minorities the hardest and cut away at the services LGBT+ people rely upon.

On top of this, austerity has worsened the gap between England’s regions, with poorer areas bearing the brunt of the Conservatives’ fiscal failures. To deliver our fairer alternative, we in Labour have to rebalance our regions and put power and money back into the hands of local people. Devolution was one of our most popular policies in government and only we can extend its successes to England, battling both London-centralism and austerity as well.

Our 2017 manifesto made a strong commitment to strengthen the voice of England’s communities, which have been so ignored by the Conservatives’ seven years of misrule. Localism under the Tories means swingeing cuts passed onto councillors; we in Labour can make sure all our communities gain from more democracy and increased investment.

We have to show our supporters that we will “take back control” and hand them the money and power to reshape their lives – instead of being ignored by central government. The system is broken, and the country knows it. In every forgotten town and depressed post-industrial area, we in Labour have to stand up and show that we will no longer stand for a broken consensus, one that values centralisation over local democracy.

Yet at the moment local government is a mixture of systems, from city regions to directly elected mayors, all with very different powers and often excluding the small towns and rural areas that have been hit hardest by austerity.

Only Labour is prepared to push for the radical reform local government needs. To deliver our promise, we should form regional authorities in each of England’s nine regions, with powers equal to those of the Welsh Assembly.

Democratically elected, with their own first ministers and funded by a Barnett formula for England, these new bodies could help end austerity by setting our commitment to wealth redistribution in stone. With control of health, education, housing, training and transport, Whitehall bureaucracy could be replaced by local democracy, and public services improved by being brought closer to communities.

Westminster would still have a key role to play, making sure the NHS stayed free for all and keeping Britain safe from terrorism, but power in our country needs to be more evenly spread.

And that need has never been greater, with distrust of how our country is governed growing with every mile further away from Westminster. This anger, aimed at London, is the same disenfranchisement that led so many Labour-voting areas to back Brexit.

Our kind of socialism has to extend beyond liberal city-dwellers and unite the whole country. At the moment, our party is losing ground in the midlands and the north, even as we earn bigger and bigger majorities in the capital. Seats like Stoke South and Copeland, where 20 years ago we led by more than 25 per cent, are being lost in part because of our focus on London.

To get a Labour government and to put Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10, we have win seats like Mansfield, Walsall North, North East Derbyshire and Middlesborough South back. That means showing that we will deliver for every part of our country, and reshape our unequal nation for good.

As well as putting our radical alternative to austerity into action, devolution in England can help to reunite the whole country. The West Lothian question would be answered for good and for all, finally ending any suggestion that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are getting a better deal than England within the union. An all-England parliament, in contrast, would drown out the voices of the other nations, and only encourage the nationalism that goes against every one of our socialist principles.

While other parties encourage division, only our anti-austerity agenda brings unity. Labour can champion regionalism because only we want to empower all of our country, unlike the Tories’ cynical sell-off of our nation’s wealth to the richest one per cent.

Since the days of Thatcher’s attacks on councils, to the Cameron-May governments’ austerity agenda, it has been the Tories who have stripped local communities of power and funds and locked it all up in the corridors of Westminster.

England’s regions are in dire need of a new settlement, of local democracy and devolution spread to every community, along with the money and power to rescue our public services. Our party is about equality, regardless of birth: it is up to us to heal the divisions in a society hit by seven years of austerity. Only Labour’s radical alternative offers hope to people up and down the country, and regionalism should be at the heart of this.

Antony Tucker is a Labour activist in the west Midlands.

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