Allowing the Tories to be the party of devolution would be a catastrophic failure

Andy Burnham

Whilst Labour has been arguing over Brexit and a range of other issues, it has largely ignored another major political development – and yet it offers a beacon of hope for our party. The election of Labour mayors in big city regions like Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Manchester has allowed Labour policies to be put into action.

Working in partnership with Labour council leaders, we are bringing forward new ideas on homelessness, climate change and cutting the cost of public transport. Despite these innovations, it has felt that we’ve been all but invisible to the national party these last three years.

  • There has been scant recognition or celebration of our successes – unlike the Tories who talk up their mayors at the despatch box;
  • Metro mayors outside of London have not been invited to speak at the Labour Party annual conference;
  • We had little involvement in the general election campaign, nor was there much mention of English devolution in the manifesto;
  • We have no nomination rights in the leadership election – despite representing millions of people – unlike MPs and MEPs.

There has been Sadiq Khan’s ‘good work standard’ to improve workers’ terms and conditions and support good employers, and Steve Rotheram’s concessionary travel scheme for apprentices. The work Jamie Driscoll is doing on Working Homes to help tenants develop their skills and move into work. The 44% reduction in the numbers sleeping on our streets that we have seen across Greater Manchester. These are Labour policies in action.

It is devolution that is breathing new life into our politics at the grassroots level.  Labour mayors are using devolution to empower local communities to be involved in developing policies that are right for their areas, building from the bottom up – doing with people, rather than the Westminster way of doing to people.

None of the leadership candidates have yet properly addressed the question of the party’s relationship with mayors and the stance on English devolution. Time is running out, and that’s why I will soon be writing to them, asking them to set out in detail their views on these matters.

The fact is that we are the most politically over-centralised and regionally unbalanced country in the OECD. And we are a London-centric party, in a London-centric country. If we leave the Tories to be the party of devolution and the regions, we will be making a catastrophic mistake. We desperately need to get power out of Whitehall and into the hands of people who understand the needs of their communities.

In Greater Manchester, we’re using devolution to change our society for the better – on bus reform, improving our railways and cleaning up our air. Whilst Westminster has made young people its target for cuts, we have made them our priority for investment and given all 16 to 18 year-olds a free bus pass. Devolution is working. It is having a profoundly positive effect on the life of our city region. It has created a new energy, and a sense of possibility as we take control of our future and do things our way.

The Conservatives are talking about ‘levelling up’ areas to the kind of powers we already have here in Greater Manchester. That’s hardly ambitious, and it’s not true devolution. They are setting up government bodies in the regions and telling combined authorities which powers they can have. This one-size-fits-all approach, handed down from Whitehall, has had its day. Those vying to be our next leader can do so much better.

When it comes to English devolution, we have really only scratched the surface. Metro mayors need to be empowered to be the early adopters of the change needed to rise to the challenge of climate change, making it more likely that the country as a whole will hit its 2050 target. We need far greater powers over local transport to create a London-style network in every city across the country.

Labour mayors are already leading the way in many of these areas. Now is the time for the leadership candidates and our party to show courage and empower our mayors and council leaders across the country to go further and faster. We need to ditch the centralising control culture within our party – equally suffocating under all four Labour leaders of recent times – and start trusting people to build a better politics from the bottom up.

A new way of doing politics is here and it is being led by Labour mayors. Our own party has been late to the party. Now is the time for it to be bold, to break out of the Westminster bubble, grasp the opportunity and become the real champions of English devolution.

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