With everything that’s going on right now, it might seem perverse to spend time talking about English identity and devolution. Huge issues like Covid, and the looming constitutional and climate crises, could make discussion around how to organise local power and accountability in the UK’s largest constituent country seem eccentric. And yet, it is essential.
Keir Starmer recently set out his plan to bring “politics and power to be much closer to people”. He committed to a UK-wide constitutional commission to “consider how power, wealth and opportunity can be devolved to the most local level” and said it will “start with listening to people in their local communities”. He added: “I will look at the conclusions without preconceptions.” This is good news, but let’s get the conversation right.
On Saturday, the English Labour Network is bringing together the voices of a number of Labour’s leading political thinkers on devolution – including Rachel Reeves, the opposition frontbencher who focuses on constitutional issues; metro mayors Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan and Jamie Driscoll; and council leaders Nick Forbes and Sharon Taylor – for an online discussion open to Labour supporters.
They will need to consider some key questions often put forward by devolution sceptics. What is the problem you are trying to address? Aren’t social justice and economic prosperity for all delivered best by national programmes? Won’t it cause more problems than it solves? Isn’t there a danger that devolution will lead to even more inequality? Haven’t we tried this before, and what makes you think it will work better this time?
The English Labour Network survey being conducted helps to identify what the priorities should be and the underlying issues we must all consider. These questions are valid and often skated over by devo-enthusiasts, who tend to assume the benefits of devolution are self-evident. But questions of structures and boundaries, powers and competencies are not where this discussion needs to start. There should be an acknowledgement that England and its voters deserve a better deal.
Neither must our debates be stifled by queasiness around discussing Englishness. The ceding of English identity to the right by many on the left not only misses an electoral trick, but also fails to understand the value of ‘belonging’ as a driver of progressive government and decisions. A patriotic case for Remain might have cut through more than a technocratic one, for example. Not only do many of the people Labour needs to win back feel more English than British, but it is clear that by creating a sense of collective effort rooted in the places in which people live, and acknowledging that the English are a diverse bunch, allows us to offer solutions based on shared values such as community and belonging.
Ultimately, there are two sides to devolution: governance and identity. One needs to reflect the other so that there is a chance to build the consent and support for the kind of transformation a Labour government would want to secure. Building that consent won’t be easy. We know that the people of England are split on what kind of devolution they want to see, if any.
One of the key questions on Saturday will be whether it is possible, or necessary, to build a consensus around one consistent structure across England or if a more ‘messy’ form of devolution might work. For instance, do regions work as power bases in places where there is little regional identity? Will empowering local councils work alongside city regions and are their jurisdictions large enough?
There is a growing consensus around the fact that there is a problem and this problem needs a solution. As 40 mostly Labour local leaders recently warned Boris Johnson: “We are still more centralised, and more regionally unequal, than any comparable country.” That would be bad enough in normal times, but with the fractures in our society and economy revealed by Covid the task of national renewal cannot be left to the kind of divisive identity politics we have witnessed from the Tories recently, nor to the existing governance structures that have proved to be so sorely unequal to the task of tackling Covid.
Without some serious effort to meet the ambitions of people in England to have more control over the decisions made that shape their communities, it will be hard to tackle crises we face with the kind of public consent and support that are needed. We should contrast the failed top-down decisions on schools and care homes and the relative success when decisions and programmes are made locally: public health campaigns designed by people who know their community, food parcels packed and delivered by local authorities – made even better when community organisations have been involved that know who is vulnerable and what they need.
The experience of good, competent, Labour-run local government can help to build the case for greater devolution; extending the competencies of elected leaders; encouraging collaboration to design strategic programmes of local renewal; and arguing for forms and tiers of government that fit the needs of the coalition of communities that come together. The challenges we face demand effective local leadership, not just to deliver against targets but also to design programmes that meet social and economic needs that vary across our nation. We recognised this for Wales and Scotland; a similar approach could grow the confidence and prosperity of our communities in England too.