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.
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.