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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.