What we learnt from the English Labour Network conference

Elliot Chappell
© THOR on Flickr/CC by 2.0

Calls for a devolution have picked up pace over the last year. Demands for a new settlement have been heard from Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and other Labour leaders across England, Wales and Scotland. Keir Starmer promised to deliver a “radical devolution of power” during his leadership campaign and in December announced the launch of a UK-wide constitutional commission.

Labour activists used the English Labour Network conference today to explore English devolution specifically. Speakers included Rachel Reeves, Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan, Tracy Brabin, Jamie Driscoll and Nick Forbes. Here’s what they said…

Rachel Reeves

Opening the conference this morning, shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves described devolution as “unfinished business” for Labour. She stressed the positive steps taken under the last Labour government but said it would be “naive and wrong” to say the party did everything it could on devolution.

Asked this morning about the makeup of the commission announced by Starmer, and who would be engaged, Reeves outlined three phases. She said the first will be “traditional stakeholder engagement” with local, business and civic leaders around the country, before moving on to what she called a “party process” with Labour members, and lastly including the public. She added that Starmer would make an announcement in the next few weeks. Reeves also emphasised that although it is a Labour commission, it will work with people from other parties.

“We very much want to reach out to interested parties in other political parties because… lasting change is achieved when you can bring people together from across the political spectrum,” Reeves said this morning. “So we want to work with people in other political parties, who also recognise that the current devolution settlement is not fit for purpose, and work together to build something that is stronger and more endurable.”

The shadow cabinet member also explained that tax-raising powers will fall under the remit of the constitutional commission. “Economic devolution is going to be part of the constitutional work that we’re doing,” Reeves explained. “We’re very much looking at all forms of devolution including around those economic levers of power.”

Andy Burnham

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham started by making what he called the “moral” case for English devolution today. He highlighted inequality exposed over ten years ago by the Marmot review and blamed the “over-concentration of political power in one postcode in central London”.

“If you run a country where power is hoarded in one place, the reality is that it’s not going to create fairness and equality for all parts of that country,” he said. “That is the reality. We have a political system that I would say is biased against the North.” He questioned why Labour has supported a system for so long that is “working against our historic mission to create a more equal country”.

Burnham set out the “political” case for English devolution, too, emphasising that the first-past-the-post electoral system “stacks the odds against us”. He argued that Labour had “got ourselves into a mindset over the years of thinking that the way to advance our ideals is to wait every four or five years and then chance everything on a Westminster election”.

He likened this to a gambler hoarding money for years and then thinking they could become a millionaire in one night, and argued that Labour should embrace a system of English devolution that “allows us to build a base around our ideals in the English regions, to bring forward Labour policies”.

The Greater Manchester mayor made the case that the model of devolution emerging around city regions is the right one, adding that this could and should be expanded out to other rural areas. “We still have a real base in English cities,” he said, describing a “network of powerful Labour cities that could become such a powerhouse for the Labour Party”.

Burnham said he had been told by some, when he stood up to the government over funding and Covid restrictions last year, that his actions had set back the cause of devolution. But he dismissed this as “nonsense”. “If the English regions have to go on bended knee to Whitehall to prise out any money out of them – that is the problem,” he argued, adding that the “tyranny of the bidding round with everyone with their begging bowl” must stop.

“We need to demand power out of Westminster to do more for ourselves, have our fate in our own hands, rebuild the regions of the country with the Labour Party at the heart of it – a strong network of Labour cities,” he told the conference. “That’s why I left Westminster.”

Sadiq Khan

London mayor Sadiq Khan spoke of his frustration in working with central government throughout the Covid health crisis. He said the pandemic had exposed “the problems with our broken system” and the Westminster government had been overwhelmed. Local political leaders could and should have been partners in the fight against Covid, he said, but had instead been “treated with suspicion and outright hostility”.

He described the achievements of Labour in London over the past five years, including the expansion of cycle lanes, improvements to air quality, progress on council house building and the creation of the Young Londoners’ Fund. But he highlighted that the office has significantly fewer powers and resources than that of European and US mayors, and others elsewhere in the world.

“In London, we depend on national government for over two thirds of revenue whereas in Paris, it’s less than a fifth; in New York it’s a quarter; and in Tokyo it’s only 6%,” Khan said. “This matters because taxes designed in Whitehall for the whole country often don’t work for London.”

He argued that the powers for England and other devolved authorities in England must be “vastly expanded”. He concluded: “Let’s get local buy-in for the changes we need to see. Let’s lead the debate within the Labour Party and let’s ensure that under the next Labour government cities and regions across England are finally, finally, given the tools to allow us to unlock social and economic progress.”

Voters will go to the polls in London on May 6th this year. Khan is on course for victory with recent polling showing the incumbent Labour mayor is expected to receive 49% of first preferences votes.

Jamie Driscoll

North of Tyne metro mayor Jamie Driscoll posed two questions on constitutional reform to the conference: “What do we want to deliver? And reform in whose interest?”. He argued that both of these elements were missing from the Brexit debate that instead focused on “who we don’t like”, and that this must be kept away from Labour’s English devolution discussions. “What do we want to deliver? For me, economic democracy,” he told the group. “In whose interest? People of ordinary means.”

Driscoll highlighted that GDP in the North East is just 73% of the national average but emphasised that it had not always been this way. He explained it had been around 93% between 1871 and 1980 and had then fallen “through the Thatcher years, through the New Labour years, through the coalition and austerity”. “Where British working people have suffered, we’ve suffered more,” he added. He told the meeting that there have been 57 initiatives to restore regional growth since 1981 and that none had worked, citing a lack of both private and public investment.

He argued that “fiscal devolution is the route we have to take”: his city region being allowed to borrow £500m, even under the current economic model, could create 14,000 jobs and would “pay for itself”. Driscoll explained that this is why he is in favour of devolution to the “level of the functional economic area”. He argued against the creation of an English parliament or English executive and said sub-national bodies, such as the Northern powerhouse, should be confederal, where city regions choose to collaborate.

Driscoll said the Tories had their messaging right with their emphasis on ‘levelling up’, regardless of whether they delivered on the promise. But he highlighted that the pandemic had exposed the falsehood of the Conservative slogan. Referring to the imposition of the regional Covid tier system, under which he said the North had been “hung out to dry”, he told the group how local mayors had fought back and eventually won. “We know that the people of our regions see this,” he said. “The sense of homeland is a strong part of identity but here, it’s not the white cliffs of Dover, it’s the Angel of the North.”

Tracy Brabin

Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin talked about her campaign as Labour’s West Yorkshire mayoral candidate and of her plans to introduce a Fair Work Commission. This has been done by Labour in Manchester and elsewhere. She pledged to bring inward investment to the region, implement a domestic abuse charter and “lead on our journey to net-zero carbon by 2038”, though stressed the need for greater funding.

“Real change costs,” she said. “And £38m for ten years, negotiated by our excellent council leaders in West Yorkshire – it sounds like a huge amount of money but it cannot be seen as the end. It has to be the beginning. It has to be the floor, not the ceiling.” She told the event that devolution was about trust, to make choices for and with local people, and that Labour mayors could be a “phenomenal force for good and a powerful advert for what Labour could do in government nationally”.

Nick Forbes

Local Government Association Labour group leader Nick Forbes stressed the need for Labour to start with a “vision of what Englishness is”. “There’s no point us thinking about structures if we don’t have a clear vision,” he said. He likened electoral support for the party to a glacier that has been melting away over the years. “The glacier has got to the point where large chunks of it are starting to break off. We’ve got to understand why we’ve got into that position, and I think it’s because we haven’t understood English identity and Englishness.”

Forbes talked about the 2004 referendum in the North East. The North East England devolution referendum saw residents go to the ballot box in November 2004 to decide whether an elected assembly should be established for the region. A turnout of 47% saw the local assembly rejected by 77% of voters. “The lesson that we need to learn from that is that we were so focused on what the structures were, and so focused on the internal tidying up of the governments, that we forgot how to communicate what we were trying to do to the wider elections.”

The council leader also said the party’s “centre of gravity” must be shifted outside of Westminster as Labour has been too centralised. “If we’re serious about devolution, if we’re serious about progressing the cause of devolution, then we as a party have to change as well,” he argued. “There’s a lesson for the party in terms of change.”

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