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

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage