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Can Labour learn to love localism?

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

Ed Miliband has pledged that the next Labour government will seek to decentralise power. Photograph: Getty Images.

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