‘Starmer’s mayor summit is no stunt. Why Labour means it on devolution’

Luke Raikes
Angela Rayner and Keir Starmer, as result counts get underway in the 2024 local elections.
Angela Rayner and Keir Starmer, as result counts get underway in the 2024 local elections.

The new Prime Minister met with England’s mayors today, within days of taking office. As a statement of intent, it takes some beating. However, many governments have promised to take office to give power away, so we might be forgiven for being sceptical. Why might it be different this time?

1. Devolution is a genuine priority

Tuesday’s mayoral meeting is on top of consistent, specific commitments to devolution across many speeches and publications, not least in the manifesto itself. Gone are the tokenistic and general references to English devolution that have marked previous Labour manifestos.

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What’s more, the ‘missions’ that will animate a Labour government lend themselves well to the partnership working that can really make devolution work. And devolution is intimately and explicitly tied to the mission above all missions: growth.

Finally, it is in Angela Rayner’s portfolio, and the powerful deputy Prime Minister will provide weight to this agenda that has so often been lacking. 

No doubt, the usual opposition to devolution remains in some corners, but its lack of substance is more apparent than ever. The party isn’t proposing anything that would make ‘postcode lotteries’ or regional spending inequality worse, as opponents often fear. Devolution will actually address these problems.

2. If it ain’t broke…

When the Conservatives took office in 2010, they tried to wipe the map clean of regional policy, but didn’t have a plan to replace it. They erased the RDAs, invented weak LEPs, struck a load of city deals with individual councils and rolled out competitions for small, centralised funding pots.

READ MORE: ‘Starmer’s reset with devolved leaders is welcome – but may prove the easy part’

Below the radar, the first combined authority took shape in Greater Manchester, building on the last Labour government’s legislation. But it took the coalition government four years of wasted time and disbanded capacity to realise that devolution to city regions was both an economically powerful and politically advantageous agenda – hence the northern powerhouse.

They’ve continued down that road since, primarily its devolution element – albeit with less than enthusiastic support (and, indeed, some backtracking) from the May and Sunak governments. 

Labour has learned from their mistakes, and successes. They have listened to the many voices arguing not to start again: they are going to continue with the combined authority model, but improve upon it. And they will both deepen and widen devolution – avoiding the false dichotomy between the two.

By keeping the governance and geography of devolution ‘boring’ (or ‘stable’ if you prefer) they’re letting real action and innovation happen on the ground, where it counts. 

3. The economic geography is more comprehensive

‘Cities versus towns’, ‘north versus south’, ‘levelling up’ – policymakers’ understanding of economic geography has often fluctuated not with the evidence, but with whoever shouts loudest or who has the snappiest branding.

The lack of secure regional and industrial strategy institutions has left the field open to the lobbyists, and hobbyists from other fields. Unmoored in a consistent evidence base, policy has often been confused and superficial.

READ MORE: Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government: ‘Levelling up’ axed from name as Rayner slams ‘gimmicks’

The northern powerhouse was a pan-regional branding, that mostly focused just on the north’s cities. The levelling up agenda promised a focus on towns, but the serious money still went to city regions. Both worked with only a partial understanding of economic geography. And neither delivered for people in the end.

A better way is possible. Regional policy needs to be evidence-based, not gimmick-led. This means drawing on well-established concepts and evidence.

That does include the ‘agglomeration’ concept that policymakers have thankfully absorbed, which describes how population density and scale can generate additional economic growth. But we should see it in a more ‘European’ sense – we should look to connect towns and cities, into city regions and wider regions, not just pile our cities ever higher and pack more people uncomfortably into a city core (i.e. the ‘American’ way).

It means industrial strategy must prioritise growth in sectors that are traded – whether services or manufacturing – which grow in towns as well as cities. And we should look at the underlying capabilities and assets, not simple concentrations of sectors.

READ MORE: Parliamentary Labour Party to elect new chair as Morden and Efford enter race

None of this means ‘jam spreading’ funding, to try and grow everything, everywhere, and all at once. But there is a sound basis of evidence and theory that shows how to grow the UK beyond London and a handful of big cities.

Labour’s understanding is evidently deeper than in previous election cycles. ‘Agglomeration’ is rightly namechecked repeatedly by the party. But this is more than a focus exclusively on cities, as dense, isolated islands of productivity.

Their devolution agenda is to city regions, which are composed of towns, as well as cities. And the potential of some towns is clearly recognised in their policy documents – which matches up with the statistics, even if towns are so different to one another that they lack an all-encompassing theoretical term to describe them, as with agglomeration. 

Reasons to be cheerful?

So, there are reasons to be optimistic. We have all grown weary of style over substance, and hype over delivery. The Conservative governments made a habit of broken promises on regional growth, even if they inched things forward at times.

READ MORE: Cabinet and minister appointments: Full list versus Labour shadow frontbench

The evidence shows that Labour has learned from their many mistakes. In doing so, they have drawn heavily on our work at the Fabian Society. And if they deliver, they will reap the political and economic dividends that evaded the Conservatives. 

The results could be a very real and tangible economic growth that improves living standards where it counts – in the places people live. It will take time, but if they show some progress in their first term, they may win a second.

Read more of our 2024 general election coverage:

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Finchley and Golders Green: Can Labour win back Britain’s most Jewish seat?

Small boats and Tory mutineers: Can veteran Mike Tapp win Dover and Deal?

East Thanet: Inside the battle for coastal ex-UKIP stronghold not won since 2005

Sheffield Hallam: ‘Can Labour’s Olivia Blake hold on in Nick Clegg’s old seat?’

Battle of the bar charts in Wimbledon: Inside a rare election three-horse race

Could Labour take ‘non-battleground’ Tory seats across the South West?

Meet NHS doctor Zubir Ahmed, fighting one of Scotland’s tightest marginals

Brighton Pavilion: As Starmer visits, can Labour win the Greens’ one seat?

Labour wants a new generation of new towns. Can it win in Milton Keynes?

Meet Gordon McKee, the 29-year-old son of a welder vying for Glasgow South

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