Let’s end the stifling over-centralisation of power in our politics

Keir Starmer

Labour has been out of power nationally for a decade. But we’ve been in power in town halls up and down the country for all of that time. Labour’s national politicians should be hammering on those town hall doors to find out what our colleagues in local government can teach us about winning and governing. If I’m elected leader, that will happen. Local government is the frontline of Labour politics. Councillors are often the first to see where national government is going wrong, and the first to identify new solutions to solve problems.

Labour councils are engines of innovation that power new ideas in our party. Plymouth has set up dozens of community-owned energy co-ops that generate energy sustainably and plough the profits back into community projects. Preston has led the way with community wealth building, using the financial muscle of council contracts to ensure investment and jobs go where local people need them most. Barking and Dagenham have launched their exciting ‘Every One Every Day’ project that opens up empty shops for use by dozens of community groups who’ve been left homeless and powerless by Conservative government funding cuts and the closure of so many community hubs like libraries, youth centres and children’s centres.

Our Labour councillors are leading the way on working towards climate justice, economic justice and social justice – the foundations of moral socialism. Similarly, our metro and city region mayors have led the way on tackling rough sleeping, building social housing, boosting apprenticeships, freezing transport fares, championing green energy and tackling air pollution.

I could have listed tens of dozens more bold, local Labour initiatives up and down the country.  We should be championing our successes, and learning from good practice. Our councillors and mayors are not marginal to our politics, they are central to it – breathing life into our Labour values in ways that are relevant to local communities.  This is Labour’s frontline of resistance to the Tory government, and our frontline in building a credible alternative.

Throughout this leadership campaign, I’ve insisted that another future is possible if we come together and fight for it. I know that future is already taking shape in the best of our Labour councils and mayors, and I want our party to learn from them. It’s time to end the stifling over-centralisation of power in our politics, in our party and in parliament. Here are the five principles that will guide me as I put Labour councils, mayors and councillors back where they should be – right at Labour’s heart.

1. Devolve power to councils and communities.

I will lead the most radical devolution of power our country has ever seen, shifting decision-making away from Whitehall to the nations, regions, cities and towns right across our country. In many other countries, local government is the equal, not the subordinate, of national government. Germany’s regional states raise taxes and control key public services like education so that they can make sure they meet local needs. In the UK, our government controls too much from the centre and holds the purse strings as well. Communities are forced to accept crippling austerity, the academisation of community schools, cuts in funding for care services and the selling-off of council housing – even if they object.

It’s time to set local government free, so as leader I will launch a constitutional convention to propose a new settlement between national and local government. I want to see local government given a bigger say over investment and local services. I want to replace the House of Lords with a democratic second chamber that represents the nations and regions of the UK. And I want to see councillors, communities and people on the front line in our public services given a bigger say over the decisions that affect them. We need to put more power in the hands of our councils so that they can put more power in the hands of the communities they serve.

2. Give councillors a bigger voice in our party.

I want councillors to have a voice at every level in the Labour Party. I will argue for increased representation of councillors on the national executive committee, and I’ll use our annual conference to showcase the great work of our Labour councils. As an opposition party seeking power nationally we must not just oppose, we must propose, and that means giving councillors platforms to talk about the innovation they’re leading.

3. Let councillors lead on campaigning.

I shake my head every time I hear senior national politicians talk about local elections as if they’re a referendum on themselves. They are not – they’re local elections about local issues and we need to take them seriously. It’s shocking that, in recent years, we held a national launch for council elections without inviting a single councillor to speak or help decide our key campaign issues. That must never happen again. I will invite councillors to lead on work with our front bench in parliament so our national campaign adds value to local campaigns across the country.

Labour councillors collectively make an enormous contribution to party funds, I’ll make sure party funding is used to support local as well as national election campaigns with more campaign organisers, innovation in digital campaigning and training to share best practice.

4. Involve councillors and mayors in policy development.

Because councillors and mayors are on the frontline, they’re often the first to see where policy needs to change and the first to come up with radical new approaches to improving public services and making communities stronger. That’s why they deserve a bigger role in Labour’s policy development nationally. Labour councils and mayors are already finding ways to engage communities to tackle the loneliness and obesity epidemics that cause such misery in our communities. It was Labour councils that led the way in making tall buildings safe when the government refused to act after Grenfell. And it’s Labour councils that are innovating by bringing privatised care services back in house so older and disabled people get the care they need from care workers who are properly paid.

I will ask every member of my shadow cabinet to work with Labour councillors in local government as we develop policy and visit councils where radical innovation is creating real improvements for local people.

5. Promote diversity.

Many Labour councils are already ahead of the national party in promoting diversity. That’s important, because we must look like and share the lived experience of all the communities we seek to represent. I will work with Labour councillors on every council to become fully representative of their own communities. I will reserve places at my proposed Labour college to support new and potential councillors from under-represented groups. I will invite councillors from diverse backgrounds to help the party reform our selection processes so we support, encourage and train people from under-represented groups to put themselves forward for election.

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