The pandemic has turned the world upside down in the ways we work and live, and many of those changes will endure. However, in some cases, traditional methods have been shown to be more effective than fashionable ones. Even Matt Hancock seems to have acknowledged this with his demolition of the Lansley reforms, which had balkanised the health service to the benefit of the privateers.
The mobilisation of the NHS and the dramatic success of the vaccine taskforce show just how effective big government can be in a crisis. The correct lesson to learn is how we can replicate this and streamline decisions across the board and speed up implementation. This offers a better way to answer public concern; not to erode the power of the British state, but to use it to make better, faster decisions and ones that benefit areas outside of London and the South East of England.
Why are we now drifting lazily back to constitution-mongering and regional government? They talked of little else on doorsteps across England (when we were allowed to doorstep canvass that is), or so you’d believe if you read Labour’s internal (and seemingly eternal) discourse about constitutional tinkering.
Gordon Brown’s undoubted talents may well be needed to stop the SNP from gaining an overall majority in Holyrood in May. But I fear his time, and that of some English mayors, may be wasted in the latest party constitutional commission. This will apparently explore “the next phase of devolution” – whatever that means.
Like electoral reform, devolution in its many varieties is a favourite and recurring topic of political obsessives, of which there is never a shortage in the Labour Party and think tank circuit. Sadly, not as much thought seems to be put into the impact of these theories on the electoral fortunes of the party in reality. (My thoughts on the geniuses who decided to change the electoral system in Scottish council elections are perhaps too expletive to be put down in a column.)
There is one big problem with the obsession with devolution and constitutional tinkering. Voters in England don’t seem to share the enthusiasm for constitutional affairs of politicos and think tankers. The more Labour keeps obsessing over constitutional issues, the less seriously we will be taken by the electorate. Voters don’t care about how the D’Hondt system works or about how you’d geographically carve up a regional assembly into different constituencies and what powers it would have. They want results.
As the Labour Party, our thinking has sadly moved away from using state power and institutions to deliver change and material differences for working people and has moved more towards trying to empower other bodies, elected or otherwise, that do not command popular legitimacy – at the expense of the state. The north-east regional assembly was rejected by an overwhelming margin in 2004, 77.93% voting no against 22.07% for yes. In 2012 in Birmingham, the position of elected mayor was rejected by 58% to 42%, only for the Tory government to impose the West Midlands combined authority on Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country – even though there was demonstrably no support for it.
Clearly, there is discontent across the country with Westminster and Whitehall and their policy formation and decision-making. Too often, government decisions are being taken disregarding the Midlands, the North of England and the other nations, and favouring the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle. Instead of obsessing over dishing out power, we need to look seriously at how we’re actually going to win power in Westminster and do something when we’ve got it. This should be our focus, rather than giving power away, wasting opportunities to manage our country well and deliver on behalf of our people.