Preparing for a devolution revolution? Ed Miliband in Manchester. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Labour must be clearer about how devolution can improve people's lives

Labour should use the devolution debate as an opportunity to resurrect hope across the country by pushing power away from Westminster – and communicating why this approach will help people.

The political establishment has been jolted by new forces that are fed by people’s alienation from a Westminster-centric system of government. After the Scottish referendum and the certainty of further devolution north of the border, focus has shifted as never before to how England should be governed. Ukip is latching onto the perception that decisions are taken that a far removed from people’s lives: representation for it in parliament for the first time confirms it poses a threat that cannot be ignored.

Responding to these challenges requires ambition and guts. The Tories have neither – they are taking the opportunity of more devolution north of the border to pursue a Westminster stitch-up that they believe would provide them with a majority in England for the foreseeable future. Dressing up low politics as high constitutional principle is perverse, but unfortunately not surprising that they would pursue this strategy for their own ends.

Labour now has an opportunity to set out a different route for the people of England. The Tories offer a limited vision that leaves the centralised Westminster model intact but focussed more sharply on the people of England. Meanwhile Ukip presents a dark vision of a little England turning in on itself and indulging in easy, knee-jerk responses to very complex challenges in communities.

The Local Government Association Labour Group has understood the threat from Ukip for a while. The sense of exclusion and disconnection that many people feel is real, particularly in communities hit by the decline in manufacturing, the growth of low-wage economies and sharp rises in immigration, often with politicians unable to forecast accurately future numbers, or address the real tensions in many communities today.

There is a danger that those on the hard left ignore the problems, and those firmly on the right attempt to use the fears for a cynical and negative agenda of division. Only Labour can occupy the ground of fairness and equality and lead a mature debate; addressing the issues faced by many but with real solutions.

Ukip isn’t offering any real solutions but they are speaking about the issues people feel aren’t being addressed by mainstream parties. By fusing global change with ultra-local consequences, they are articulating people’s sense of economic insecurity and playing to anxieties about threats to “our” way of life. Labour cannot simply offer a one-size-fits-all national response since people’s experience of disconnection is localised and particular to their communities - be they coastal towns or former industrial areas, for example.

Scotland showed us all how to engage the public in political debate. But the debates weren’t just issues for Scotland – increasing restlessness in England as the other nations in the UK receive devolved powers is inevitable. And if local communities continue to be relatively powerless to respond to the particular challenges they face, Ukip will remain a temptation.

The full Constitutional Convention Labour has proposed is a significant opportunity to involve people in addressing the need for and shape of further devolution in England. This, combined with Ed Miliband’s recent commitment to an English Devolution Act that would further decentralise power, and the establishment of a regional cabinet, sets out a direction of travel for reform that builds on work already done through Labour’s Policy Review, notably the Innovation Taskforce and the Adonis Growth Review.

Now that a broad framework has been set, Labour must be clear about how pushing power away from Westminster and into the hands of communities can enable people to take control of their lives. Substantive decentralisation of power will involve local areas gaining real levers to grow their economies, while also being able to allocate resources to ensure local people are equipped with the skills and confidence to take advantage of new opportunities. It would mean local public services can become more integrated, which would create more responsiveness to needs and agility in adapting to demographic changes. Building capacity locally is important in itself, but also has the potential to neutralise the local anxiety that can arise from new pressures as a result of population shifts from inward migration.

As well as equipping communities to be less vulnerable to outside shocks, and more resilient for the future, decentralising power can be a route to restoring local pride where this is a memory not a reality for too many disaffected people. It offers a way of governing that is not remote and irrelevant, but has greater legitimacy and resonance because decisions are taken closer to, and genuinely with, local people.  

Labour has always been at its best where it gives a voice to those who are not heard. While the Tories are an expression of the established few and Ukip echoes fear and discontent, Labour’s voice can – and must – resurrect hope, restore pride and foster belonging across all parts of our country.  

Jim McMahon is leader of Oldham Council and leader of the Local Government Association Labour Group. He tweets @CllrJimMcMahon

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496