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

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.