John Denham: How New Labour failed England’s deprived regions

The last Labour government brought about unprecedented constitutional reform. Yet it left England virtually unchanged. If we are not careful, the next government will do the same.

Between 1997 and 2010, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland got devolved assemblies. Freedom of Information and the incorporation of ECHR were enacted. The Lords were reformed, and a Supreme Court established. Referenda became commonplace. But, apart from the London Mayor and Assembly, the governance of England remained as before: run by the UK government and the most centralised nation in Europe.

In 1997, Labour promised England regional assemblies that, in due course, would be elected. These were presented as part of coherent package of constitutional reform for the entire UK. Seven years into government, the people of the north east rejected plans for a largely toothless elected assembly. Labour never mentioned constitutional change for England again. But north east voters shouldn’t take the blame for Labour’s failure.  

As early as 1998, Tony Blair would write a pamphlet on English local government that didn’t even mention the new regional assemblies. As John Prescott told me when researching an article about the New Labour government, “we are a naturally centralised party; we believe in capturing power and then to use it, and that to use it is by central government ministers doing it”. Prescott was an exception: even in local government, Labour had no settled view on devolution. Regionalists vied with the leaders of the major cities. District councillors viewed unitary reorganisation with suspicion. The offer of additional resources could usually trump the demand for greater powers. As former advisor Mike Ward observed, “the real interest in the Labour Party is much more in regional economic development than it is in constitutional change”.

It was not just a belief in Whitehall power that drove Labour’s centralisers. Whatever the aspirations of the party in Scotland and Wales, most of the Westminster leadership saw devolution as a political ploy to defeat the nationalists. (Memo to ask how that turned out.) At heart, Labour was deeply invested in the imperial unitary state in which all power and authority resided in Westminster. Many in Labour saw England as inherently dominated by southern Conservativism. This, coupled with Welsh and Scottish opposition to an English national voice, all worked against change.

Tam Dalyell was a lone voice asking whether English people would be happy to see Scottish MPs voting on English matters. By 2003, when Labour was forced to reply to concerns over Scottish and Welsh MPs imposing university fees and NHS trusts on England (against the wishes of many English Labour MPs), it was too late. Labour could not question the union parliament without undermining its own legitimacy.

Labour did make changes to the administration of England, setting up Regional Development Agencies and creating an extensive system of regional administration. But these structures, like the modest devolution to local areas, were primarily intended to enable government to tie local stakeholders into the delivery of central priorities. Few real powers and resources were devolved and none irreversibly. When the coalition was elected in 2010, Labour’s regional legacy was swept away with little opposition. England’s deprived regions, denied even the relative protection of the Barnett formula, were to shoulder the brunt of austerity. Osborne copied Labour’s model of limited and centrally led devolution for his own ‘devo-max’, but overall it was a poor record, and Labour’s failure is reflected in continuing regional disparities.  

With hindsight, it is clear that no level of the Labour Party had really thought through how England should be governed. The party had too readily assumed that the centralised institutions of the unitary state were fit to govern effectively. The former minister and select committee chair, Graham Allen, a strong campaigner for devolution, observes: “It just wasn’t that we were ‘ready to go’ and then a few people at the top stopped it. In a real sense the party itself wasn’t really geared for a radical devolution to England.”

Will the next Labour government be any different? There are committed devolvers in the shadow cabinet, but many of the current leadership seem as keen on centralised power as their Blairite, Brownite and Milibandite predecessors. Local government is again divided, with contesting claims from metro-cities, towns and regions (though the latter are more easily found in London, Wales and Scotland than in England’s localities). Some want devolution across England; others want a special deal for the north. The debate about who makes England’s laws and its relationship with the rest of the union has barely begun. The promised constitutional convention is unlikely to start until Labour is in power, meaning real reform will be pushed into Labour’s second term. Those who want real change for England need to inject some urgency in Labour’s debates, or the history of 1997 looks set to repeat itself.

John Denham is director of the English Labour Network and a former Labour cabinet minister.

John’s study of New Labour and England 1997-2010 is published in Governing England.

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