It is up to Labour to advance devolution

As the only truly national party, Labour will shape the future of the Union.

The rejection of city mayors in nine of the 10 cities that held referenda last Thursday has brought English devolution to a standstill. Apathy, an anti-political mood and feeble government backing conspired fatally to weaken the Yes campaign. In a number of cities, local party bosses neutered grassroots activism and prevented the mobilisation of party machines in favour of change. Yet the chief reason the case for mayors fell was the same as that which scuppered the ill-fated regional assembly for the north east: voters would not back reform when no meaningful devolution of power was on offer.

Labour’s ambivalence towards political reform must carry part of the blame. Labour had the casting vote on city mayors, just as it had on the AV referendum last year. It holds power in almost all the big cities outside London. It chose to exercise support for change only where local leaders wanted it, in Liverpool, Leicester and Salford, in each case without recourse to a referendum. Elsewhere, Labour was either split or straightforwardly hostile.

This doesn’t bode well for the party. The intellectual energies of its democratic reformers are currently focused on community organising, civic political engagement and party funding reform. Each is important and may yet bear substantial fruit. But Labour cannot advance a new politics without giving a convincing account of how to devolve power in England and revitalise local democracy. It needs to embrace a transformative localisation of power on major areas of policy, such as economic development, transport, housing, and schooling.

On some issues, like crime and housing, existing local authorities and the new Police and Crime Commissioners will take the lead. On economic development, transport and welfare-to-work, metro-mayors for city-regions, on the London mayoral model, are the best option (as an intermediate step, combined authority structures could be developed in the big cities, following Greater Manchester’s lead).  Whatever the chosen solutions, the project for English devolution must be set on a new path.

This is not just a matter of arcane local government reform. Englishness is on the rise, sparked by resentment at the devolution settlement, while feeding off deeper cultural and political trends. It currently finds voice in a clutch of fringe parties, rather than in the political mainstream, although UKIP’s recent success bears witness to the emergence of a new southern English political identity – one that is hostile to immigration, the European Union and the political establishment in equal measure.  Lacking progressive outlets, Englishness is channelled to the right of the political spectrum.

Developments in Scotland will bring new urgency to this question. Although the SNP’s advance was checked in the local government elections, Glasgow was no Stalingrad for Scottish nationalism. The SNP has continued to draw support away from all other main Unionist political parties bar Labour. Scottish liberalism, once utterly hegemonic north of the border, is on the verge of extinction.  The Liberal Democrats have been reduced to a rump of 71 councillors, taking less than 6 per cent of the popular vote.  Meanwhile, Scottish Conservatism shows no sign of reversing its fifty year decline.

As a result, between them, the SNP and Labour captured over two-thirds of the seats up for grabs last week (and this is in local government elections using the Single Transferable Vote). Thus we can now see the armies on the battlefield of Scottish independence clearly arrayed. It is a straight fight between Labour and the SNP. Anything else is just flanking support.

The most likely outcome is that Scotland gains more devolved power, rather than independence. But the consequences will still be felt throughout the UK. The gap between devolution to the nations of the United Kingdom and devolution within England has grown ever wider since 1997. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have accrued more powers and developed new political identities, increasingly divorced from the logic of party competition in England. Once Scotland advances to a form of fiscal federalism (so-called “devo-max”), or more devolution short of that position, the gap between the powers its Parliament will possess and those available in England outside London will have became a yawning chasm.

This prospect is viewed with acute unease in the north of England, where business leaders and politicians feel increasingly trapped between an assertive, powerful Scotland on the one hand and the economic and political clout of London on the other. Just as the devolution settlement of 1997 represented the unleashing of energies in the nations of the UK that had been blocked for years in the decaying Conservative Unionist state, so too the people of northern England may look to a new political settlement to remedy their political and economic marginalisation.

Last week’s local council elections hardened the north-south divide. Labour added to its control of the big northern cities, sweeping up a host of other urban seats (in some areas, such as Knowsley, local government has become a one-party state), while the Conservatives retreated further and the Liberal Democrats were routed.  This has left Labour as the only party that can now plausibly claim to be truly national in reach. Its success in the Midlands, strong showing in the Greater London Assembly and gains in the south mean that, while it remains a long way short of its 1997 high water mark, it is uniquely able to straddle the shifting terrains of devolution politics in the UK as a whole.

As such, it bears a significant responsibility for crafting a new constitutional and democratic settlement for the Union. The Liberal Democrats are too enfeebled, the Conservatives too conservative. It falls to Labour to put itself at the head of those forces that can be marshalled to the cause of a new democratic politics - one that advances the case for greater devolution, not separation for Scotland; gives voice to Englishness and the claims to power of its cities and counties; and draws the nations of the United Kingdom and their representativeness into new political relationships at Westminster.

It cannot do this alone, nor should it. Pluralism is the essence of democratic reform. But without Labour, there is no prospect of renewed progress.

Nick Pearce is the director of IPPR

A general view of Edinburgh Castle on February 7, 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood