The deal to devolve NHS spending to Greater Manchester has split Labour (Photo:Getty)
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Real devolution has to come from public consent, not Whitehall diktat

Devolution has to be about more than transferring power from one unaccountable structure in London to another in Manchester, Lisa Nandy argues

The Greater Manchester devolution deal took a lot of people by surprise. Negotiated behind closed doors and announced to the media, it has led to heated debate among the public, charities and community groups, many local councillors and Members of Parliament. Two years ago, in a public referendum Manchester residents had rejected a Mayor but now with a new deal on the table - much more significant and covering the whole of Greater Manchester - the public have been cut out of the conversation.

But, as ministers told me when I asked questions about this in Parliament, the public will have a say – through the ballot box. Only, as it turns out, they won’t. Not until 2017 at the earliest, although the Mayor, who will be appointed in June, can serve until 2019 before an election must be called.

In the meantime we’ve learnt through the media that £13.5m of public money is being spent on transforming Manchester Town Hall’s bureaucratic structure ready for the appointed Mayor, or “eleventh leader” to start work immediately. Ministers have confirmed to me that no thought has yet been given to public scrutiny or involvement. And a consultation to consider the impact of these huge, sweeping changes on local communities ran for just three weeks, wasn’t advertised and had only 12 responses, 10 of them from the local authority leaders who brokered the deal in the first place.

Despite the fact that it closed just a week ago, the consultation didn’t even mention the NHS once let alone the transfer of responsibility and billions of pounds of NHS funding that was announced and signed by George Osborne today, just weeks ahead of the general election. Even if ministers did agree to consult on it now, it makes you wonder what they would be consulting on, since once again the deal has been done without any input from the public.

No wonder there’s such concern amongst people across Greater Manchester. The BBC visited my constituency in Wigan recently and reported public responses to the proposals ranged from bafflement to anger. With today’s deal over health and social care, that concern has been amplified.

Devolution can and should bring significant benefits to regions like mine. Decisions should be made closer to people, with greater local accountability, putting people and communities in the driving seat about choices that affect their lives. Real devolution – pushing power down to local areas, communities and families - gives us the chance to move away from a style of government based on ‘doing to’ rather than ‘doing with’ and draw on the talent we have in our region. It gives us the chance to pull together with charities, local businesses and community groups rather than commissioning services through big block contracts run by huge private companies.

But at best this deal, as George Osborne has constructed it, appears to transfer power from an unaccountable group of officials in Whitehall, to another group in Manchester town hall. With councillors across Greater Manchester lacking detail about their future role, the risk is it will level up power, taking decisions from a local to a regional level, where currently there is no direct accountability, and enable the centre to hold their hands up when problems arise and say “it is not my problem” - the exact words used by Nick Clegg in Parliament a few weeks ago when I asked why a deal that was supposed to empower the people had cut out them out altogether.

There are voices that argue that despite the lack of democratic accountability, public involvement or thought given to scrutiny and challenge, this is a step forward. They are right to point out that currently holding Whitehall to account is far too difficult. But surely we shouldn’t accept that there is only a binary choice between an unaccountable structure in London or another in Manchester. There is an alternative, as Andy Burnham has set out – a properly funded and locally accountable NHS that hands greater power to people and guarantees the public ethos at the core of the NHS. On that basis, devolution could be transformative for this country and its people.

But for now, democracy has become an afterthought. It’s time to put the people back into the picture, by strengthening local accountability, providing communities and councillors with the tools and resources they need to scrutinise and challenge those who hold power and ensuring no individual can hold such power without facing an election first. Instead of backroom deals about our public services, decided without us, behind closed doors, let’s build our public services with the best asset we have; the people.

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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