Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour must challenge the myths about decentralisation

Far from creating a postcode lottery, greater localism can lead to lower levels of regional inequality.

When Ed Miliband set out his vision for people-powered services, he was clear that the centralised state cannot diagnose and solve every local problem. Genuine power cannot be transferred to service users if decision-making is hoarded in Whitehall. Jon Cruddas reinforced this when he set out the importance of devolving power to delivering Labour’s ambitions of a more equal and inclusive society.  

This reflects Labour's  defining mission to tackle inequality. The Local Government Innovation Taskforce’s First Report: The case for change, now sets out the underlying case for such a power shift – and why inequality and decentralisation are inherently linked.

The election in 2015 will be an important juncture for our public services – the course pursued after this point will determine whether they can play an effective role in the future in overturning the social determination of poor life chances. The twin pressures of rising demand and shrinking resources are forcing a choice. Either to continue, as this government has largely pursued, the course of salami-slicing Whitehall budgets, squeezing separate services and tinkering around the edges of traditional modes of delivery. This will lead to the decline, retrenchment and residualisation of public services with ever-higher thresholds for use and the termination of some altogether.

The danger is so immediate that this status quo has now become riskier than the second option: fundamental reform. The Taskforce’s report sets out the foundations for how this can be achieved through a new strategy that organises services around places, rather than within departmental silos from the centre replicated in communities. This is based on evidence of what is working already – where innovations are being driven against the flawed logic of a system which constrains the ability of services to adapt to the challenges they are confronted with.

By providing services that are more anchored to local conditions, designed around people’s actual, not perceived needs, they can be more effective. By better enabling services to collaborate and cooperate beyond institutional boundaries they can be more efficient and drive out duplication. And by taking a whole system approach across all services in an area, early intervention can be built in with incentives between services aligned to secure the cashable savings that are required for proper shift away from high cost reaction and towards prevention.

But to realise this strategy will involve dispelling some myths that are often propagated about decentralisation.

Firstly, that it will lead to a postcode lottery in provision. While we must recognise existing variations in a centralised system, our evidence cites international comparators which show higher levels of decentralisation can lead to lower levels of regional inequality. This, combined with evidence that the potential of our big cities outside London is held back by centralisation, would strongly suggest that to achieve greater fairness overall we should pursue decentralisation with determination, as an effective route to social justice.

Secondly, that local structures are not up to the job. Local councils can be prone to weaknesses in a system that largely concentrates power and resource at the centre. Yet failures at the centre occur frequently – the Work Programme and Universal Credit are two examples of centrally managed programmes that are struggling to cope. But when the centre fails this is seen as particular, rather than a reflection of its systemic inability to deal effectively with complexity at scale. Given that all levels of public administration are prone to strengths and weaknesses, a more objective strategy would be based on understanding what level of governance is appropriate for maximising the impact of interventions.

Thirdly, that by decentralising, a Labour government wouldn’t be able to deliver on its agenda everywhere in the country. On the contrary, our approach to a new settlement between the centre and local areas would be based on a clear set of national entitlements as the basis of a devolved approach to ensure people and places are directly empowered as a result. Given that the old levers of a centralised state have reached the limits of their efficacy, a more decentralised statecraft is now a more realistic means of achieving change: in a complex world distance is a hindrance.

The challenge will be to create a reformed approach which enables innovation that can quickly develop, spread and embed – driving success, rather than enshrining aversion to failure. In this way, we can create new routes to meeting the demand pressures and over time seek a sustainable system-shift towards prevention, and ensure a system in which no individual or community is held back from fulfilling their potential. This will be the ultimate test for people-powered services.

Sir Richard Leese is Co-Chair of the Local Government Innovation Taskforce and Leader of Manchester City Council.

The Taskforce’s First Report: The case for change is available here. Their final report is due later this year. 

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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.