Trusting in devolution

London mayoral candidates say they will work with boroughs and local governments, but they

Take the time to glance through the main Mayoral candidates’ manifestos and a phrase you are likely to come across is ‘I will work with the boroughs to…”.

To London’s local councils, this is of course preferable to: “I will force the boroughs…”, but does it really mean anything? Despite the large portfolio of “strategic” powers enjoyed by the office of the Mayor of London, it is quite difficult to get much done in London without working with the boroughs in some way.

London’s borough councils are there to represent the needs of their local communities, and from time to time, these needs will be at odds with how a mayor might think the capital should work. The real test of the office of the Mayor of London is what happens on these occasions: should the mayor dismiss the views of local people and press ahead with his plans, or is there another way?

The leaders of London’s local authorities believe that there is, and London Councils recently released a new prospectus for government in the capital: Trusting devolution. Timed to coincide with the Mayoral campaign, this important document sets out how the biggest challenges facing the capital can be successfully addressed by putting local communities at the centre of developing policy.

A change in emphasis is needed in London government. We need to refocus government from a centralised approach that can all too easily ignore local views to one that embraces London’s unique diversity and puts local communities at the centre of decision-making.

It is fair to say that all the main political parties now make a case for devolution, and for local people and their representatives to have a far greater say in how their local area is managed. The wide consensus is that government in the UK is too centralised, too removed from local people to respond effectively to their concerns.

Anyone who lives in or has visited London will know that the capital is a diverse place – not only in terms of its population but also in terms of the range of areas it comprises. As Trusting devolution makes clear, London is not a top-down, one-size-fits-all city, so we should not attempt to govern it as such.

Instead, we need to develop local answers for local needs – and be bold in developing solutions that are tailored to what local communities want. We have set out five areas – ranging from the impact of poverty through to crime – where we think a more locally driven approach could bring about huge improvements for Londoners.

Underpinning this is a desire to reconnect Londoners with this city’s governance. Local people need to believe that they can make a difference, and ensuring they are involved in developing the solutions to the problems facing their local area will reinvigorate democracy in the capital.

The office of the Mayor of London is undoubtedly about leadership – but what does strong leadership for London look like? Is it imposing your will across the capital’s communities, or is it instead having the confidence to let go of power, to give local people the freedom they need to rise to local challenges?

London needs a Mayor that recognises its diversity, its plurality – and most importantly, one that is happy to respond to what local people need – even if it differs from their singular vision for the city. London’s next Mayor needs to ask how he or she can put London’s communities back at the centre of this city’s government. The answer lies in Trusting devolution.

Councillor Merrick Cockell is the London Councils Chairman

To find out who you should be voting for in the London mayoral election on May 1st, click here

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times