Labour must embrace localism

Central government is no longer trusted or effective. That creates huge opportunities for the Opposi

In politics, it seems we’re all localists now. But that has not stopped a growing backlash against the idea of decentralising power in England.

Last week a survey of civil servants found that nearly a third thought localism was flawed and only 10% were fully in favour. The Committee on Climate Change recently called for new national duties to be placed on councils to produce low carbon strategies. Even TV chef Jamie Oliver is getting in on the act, demanding national standards for school dinners in Michael Gove’s academies.

Should Labour join in? On the face of it, this sounds like good politics. There are real reasons to criticise the coalition – for instance, the clear evidence that council cuts have hit poorest areas worst and the limited amount of new power for local government. The obvious thing for an opposition party to do is to try and discredit localism as nothing more than cover for cuts.

Obvious, but wrong. Instead of trying to knock localism down, Labour should outflank the coalition by doing it better. The party cannot return to the high centralism of the Blair/Brown years, when it turned out the man in Whitehall really didn’t know best when it came to NHS IT, teenage pregnancy and public satisfaction with state services. If the past 15 years proved anything, it is that central control cannot deliver an end to inequality.

Labour needs a new philosophy of governing, and localism fits the bill. It can address a number of the problems that any government will face after the next election. The English are starting to demand a greater say in the way they are governed against the backdrop of the Scottish independence debate. Devolving more power to cities and shires is part of any credible response.

Localism can drive growth – mounting evidence shows that greater financial independence for cities can increase GDP. It can also help tackle austerity. Studies suggest that £20bn could be saved over 10 years by giving councils more power to reorganise something as simple as all the public sector property in an area. Moreover, at a time when politics is facing a generalised crisis of trust, over 60% of us say we trust our councils.

A progressive approach to localism needs to do three things: break down the power of Whitehall departments, encourage councils to cluster into bigger units and introducing compulsory voting.

A lack of joined up thinking in Whitehall creates artificial walls between business and transport, welfare and justice. We need to break down the barriers, and that means breaking the power of the great departments of state.

Labour should promise to introduce a devolution bill that would make Whitehall significantly smaller by handing control of large elements of services such as criminal justice, skills and business policy, and benefits administration to local authorities. The government should publish a whole-of-government strategy for the coming parliament, with a handful of big, clear goals for local authorities and other local services, policed through a new department of the prime minister and cabinet.

Councils need to change too. They are already taking a 28% cut in their central government grants and there is almost certainly more to come whoever wins the next election. If they are going to maintain their services and get to the right scale to drive growth, local authorities need to cluster together across cities and shires to share services and pool their investment power to drive growth.

Some councils already clubbing together into combined authorities – a bit like the Greater London Authority without the mayor’s powers – that currently cover Greater Manchester and may soon cover West Yorkshire as well.  Labour should encourage more of this with carrots and sticks: new powers for those who voluntarily cluster, the threat of a top down restructuring for those who drag their feet. This should be a precursor to the eventual election of Boris-style ‘metro-mayors’ for all the country’s major conurbations.

There exists an opportunity to create a new era of prosperous English city states that can channel the best of Chamberlain and Morrison, but to justify devolution we need to make sure that local politicians are accountable to their electorates for the exercise of their new powers. Low turnouts – the average is in the early 30s - have for too long been an excuse for centralism. But just because the public isn’t interested in voting, doesn’t mean voting isn’t in the public interest. That is why we should consider introducing compulsory voting for local elections.

David Blunkett once gave a speech which complained that ministers had ‘responsibility without power’. His government tried to resolve this problem by taking more power into the centre. This time round, if the party wants to win and, more importantly, to govern well, it needs to take the other path: Labour needs its own localism.

Simon Parker is Director of the New Local Government Network

How it used to be - civil servants sorting files. Source: Getty Images

Simon Parker is director of the New Local Government Network

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At Labour conference, activists and politicians can't avoid each other – but try their best to "unsee"

My week, from havoc in the Labour family to a sublime act of real-life trolling – via a shopping centre.

I like to take a favourite novel with me to party conference for when it all gets too much, and this year I took China Miéville’s The City & the City. It takes place in the fictional cities of Besžel and Ul Qoma, two metropolises that exist in the same geographic space but must dutifully “unsee” one another or risk the sanction of Breach, the secret police force. It turned out to be a better allegory for what was going on outside my hotel than I had expected.

Labour, as I don’t need to tell you, is badly split on almost everything. Now that the acrid leadership race has reached its inevitable conclusion, activists and politicians on both sides are operating as if they had a standing duty to “unsee” each other. The atmosphere feels a bit like a family dinner after a blazing row: everyone is aware that things have been said that will take years to be forgiven, if they ever will be, so the conversation is largely banal and superficial.

The exception is the conference floor, the only place where Corbynites and Corbynsceptics cannot unsee each other, which was therefore the scene of several acrimonious confrontations after tricky votes. It’s difficult to predict where Labour goes from here. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is largely against a split, but its members surely can’t spend the next four years dutifully pretending not to see one another,or their activists?

 

Chaos and confusion

Would it have been better for Jeremy Corbyn if his defeated challenger, Owen Smith, had done a little bit better against him – not just in the final vote but throughout the contest? All summer, Smith distinguished himself only through his frequent gaffes, to the point where it felt more appropriate to describe him as a participant in the leadership race rather than a combatant.

The difficulty for both Corbyn and his critics is that his opponents in the PLP have no clear leader. As a result, their dissatisfaction is amorphous, rather than being productively channelled into a set of specific demands or criticisms, which Corbyn could then reject or accept. The overwhelming feeling about his leadership among the PLP is that “something must be done”. So whenever an MP embarks on a freelance assault – Margaret Hodge’s no-confidence motion, say, or Clive Betts’s attempt to bring back elections to the shadow cabinet – the majority leaps on the scheme. Corbyn’s critics reason that at least it’s something.

Although fractious Labour MPs might not see it that way, the decision not to restore shadow cabinet elections helps their cause. Taking away the leader’s ability to choose his ministerial team was a recipe for chaos – chaos that would, rightly, have been blamed on them.

 

Custody rights

If the Labour family would be, as I suspect, better off seeking a divorce, there is an irony that one of the things that they all agree on is the fate of the kids. The party is entirely united behind its leader in his opposition to grammar schools – as is almost every serious thinker on education policy, from Policy Exchange on the right through to Melissa Benn on the left.

Still, Labour will encounter a visceral type of resistance to its stance from the alumni of grammars, who, regardless of what the studies show, attribute their success to their attendance at selective schools. I can understand that. Although I went to a comprehensive, the emotional pull of one’s upbringing is hard to escape. I can, for example, read all the studies that show that children in single-parent families do worse – but I find it hard to experience it as anything other than an awful attack on my mother, to whom I owe everything.

Winning the argument over schooling will require a sensitive ear to those for whom the argument against the schools seems like an attack on their parents.

 

Pudding and pie

One of the nice things about being from a single-parent family is that I don’t have to admit to flaws – merely to unresolved kinks that would have been ironed out had my absent father stuck around. One such kink is my capacity for procrastination, which
results in my making decisions too often at the last minute.

This always comes back to bite me at party conference. At dinner events, I frequently put off picking my meal options to the point that I have to eat whatever the kitchen has left. At one meal this year, I was lucky enough to have three courses of pudding, but at another, my hastily cobbled-together starter seemed to consist entirely of pesto, taramasalata and rocket.

 

Too late

The best thing about party conference is sharing a panel with a politician you don’t know very much about who turns out to be highly impressive. It’s particularly cheering now, when my optimism about politics is at a low ebb. I try to meet them properly for coffee afterwards, although because of my capacity for putting things off, that doesn’t always happen.

Last year, I was chairing a particularly testy fringe on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The then shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, was running late and an MP from the 2015 intake had to field all the questions on her own. She did this with immense poise and knowledge, while clearly having a sense of how unhelpful some of the louder, angrier voices were – during one lengthy monologue from the floor, she turned and rolled her eyes at me. Her name was Jo Cox.

I kept meaning to get to know her, but I never got around to ringing her office, and now I never will.

 

Banter and bargains

A colleague alerts me to a sublime act of real-life trolling. When Everton opened a second branch of its team store in Liverpool’s shopping centre, it picked an innocuous name: Everton Two. Innocuous, that is, until you realise that the shopping centre is called Liverpool One. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories