Can Labour learn to love localism?

Miliband must move swiftly to advance his promise to break with his party's centralising habits.

It is symbolic of the last Labour government's severe addiction to centralisation that in a few weeks the party is holding its local government conference for the first time in eight years. By contrast, it was notable that in his underestimated speech at the weekend, Ed Miliband radically committed his party to breaking the centralising habit.

Later, at the same Fabian Society conference, Hilary Benn, the shadow local government secretary, went further, lambasting the "2,000 performance indicators" that Blair and Brown’s government had posted out to Whitehall’s seeming subjects in the country. In a passionate speech, Benn went so far as to suggest that regional development agencies could now never come back. Moreover, he argued, the coalition’s "City Deals" programme, which allows local areas to negotiate the devolution of economic and other powers on a bespoke basis, should be extended to counties and beyond. But three short months from nationwide county council elections, halfway through this government, and with another Spending Review looming, how can "one nation" Labour make such language concrete?

The urge to devolve power is not of course entirely alien to Labour cabinet ministers. Tony Blair created the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. As local government secretary, David Miliband began to explore "double devolution" before being moved. John Denham went further, lifting some central regimes and opening up the pernicious Prevent programme, with its tight correlation of Muslim headcount to "Islamic threat".  Since then, the coalition has taken a torch to hundreds of regulations, rules and circulars that defined the Brownite approach to governance.

However, for all the purported successes of the coalition’s City Deals, they have been opposed at crucial moments by the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Business, the Department for Transport and the Treasury. This means Labour has to  change the way that it shadows these departments even before it decides on any of their futures. Naming and shaming the centralising instincts of individual ministers might be a start. Indeed, if the Labour leader is to confirm his localising intent, he and Ed Balls, with Jon Cruddas, have to win the argument against mass-produced policy with every shadow minister in advance of the general election, rather than wait and hope that it will all work smoothly when red boxes return.

Labour’s newest MP - and erstwhile leader of Lambeth Council - Steve Reid, is compelling in this regard. In a complex world, he argues, where citizens experience huge variety at work, "on demand" leisure, and where localities compete in myriad ways, the clunky targets of "deliverology" no longer have meaning, if they ever did. So "why not abolish DCLG"? But even this rhetorical radicalism may be cautious given the ongoing resource scarcity that will define future administrative hopes.

If local economic growth and an integrated and innovative approach to making work pay are the future watchwords what is the point of BIS and DWP? Cannot Leeds or Bristol make better strategic choices about their transport needs than the DfT?  And how much additional civic margin could be unlocked in straitened times by reducing the Treasury’s heavy hand, which George Osborne has done little to undermine. It will not be easy for Labour to decide which central government departments it should let go before 2015.

Benn, it transpires, has asked local authorities to let him know "which powers" they want decentralised in order to build enterprise, justice and inclusion when Labour returns to power. Angela Eagle is beginning to move in a similar direction at Transport. Both represent the spirit of Miliband’s Labour, with its fresh attention to building our common life across all our social institutions, rather than imagining their bland and stultifying purpose in technocratic isolation. But similar boldness will need heavy political cover from Labour’s leader and perhaps even a fundamental conversion on the part of Balls, now that he knows is safe in his job.

When Miliband addresses Labour’s local government leaders in a fortnight’s time in Nottingham we will begin to see how his first speech of the year links to the themes he now wants to drive into the heart of the party’s ethos. Having raised the standard of decentralised, participative and socially responsible localism in London, his audience in the East Midlands will listen with anticipation for signs of a further advance. More than most, they will know how much ground  there is to cover if Labour’s newly declared abstinence from extreme centralism is survive any tendency to relapse.

Francis Davis is a fellow at ResPublica and visiting fellow in civic innovation at Portsmouth University business school

Ed Miliband has pledged that the next Labour government will seek to decentralise power. Photograph: Getty Images.
David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide