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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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