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, and Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser