The rejection of city mayors in nine of the 10 cities that held referenda last Thursday has brought English devolution to a standstill. Apathy, an anti-political mood and feeble government backing conspired fatally to weaken the Yes campaign. In a number of cities, local party bosses neutered grassroots activism and prevented the mobilisation of party machines in favour of change. Yet the chief reason the case for mayors fell was the same as that which scuppered the ill-fated regional assembly for the north east: voters would not back reform when no meaningful devolution of power was on offer.
Labour’s ambivalence towards political reform must carry part of the blame. Labour had the casting vote on city mayors, just as it had on the AV referendum last year. It holds power in almost all the big cities outside London. It chose to exercise support for change only where local leaders wanted it, in Liverpool, Leicester and Salford, in each case without recourse to a referendum. Elsewhere, Labour was either split or straightforwardly hostile.
This doesn’t bode well for the party. The intellectual energies of its democratic reformers are currently focused on community organising, civic political engagement and party funding reform. Each is important and may yet bear substantial fruit. But Labour cannot advance a new politics without giving a convincing account of how to devolve power in England and revitalise local democracy. It needs to embrace a transformative localisation of power on major areas of policy, such as economic development, transport, housing, and schooling.
On some issues, like crime and housing, existing local authorities and the new Police and Crime Commissioners will take the lead. On economic development, transport and welfare-to-work, metro-mayors for city-regions, on the London mayoral model, are the best option (as an intermediate step, combined authority structures could be developed in the big cities, following Greater Manchester’s lead). Whatever the chosen solutions, the project for English devolution must be set on a new path.
This is not just a matter of arcane local government reform. Englishness is on the rise, sparked by resentment at the devolution settlement, while feeding off deeper cultural and political trends. It currently finds voice in a clutch of fringe parties, rather than in the political mainstream, although UKIP’s recent success bears witness to the emergence of a new southern English political identity – one that is hostile to immigration, the European Union and the political establishment in equal measure. Lacking progressive outlets, Englishness is channelled to the right of the political spectrum.
Developments in Scotland will bring new urgency to this question. Although the SNP’s advance was checked in the local government elections, Glasgow was no Stalingrad for Scottish nationalism. The SNP has continued to draw support away from all other main Unionist political parties bar Labour. Scottish liberalism, once utterly hegemonic north of the border, is on the verge of extinction. The Liberal Democrats have been reduced to a rump of 71 councillors, taking less than 6 per cent of the popular vote. Meanwhile, Scottish Conservatism shows no sign of reversing its fifty year decline.
As a result, between them, the SNP and Labour captured over two-thirds of the seats up for grabs last week (and this is in local government elections using the Single Transferable Vote). Thus we can now see the armies on the battlefield of Scottish independence clearly arrayed. It is a straight fight between Labour and the SNP. Anything else is just flanking support.
The most likely outcome is that Scotland gains more devolved power, rather than independence. But the consequences will still be felt throughout the UK. The gap between devolution to the nations of the United Kingdom and devolution within England has grown ever wider since 1997. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have accrued more powers and developed new political identities, increasingly divorced from the logic of party competition in England. Once Scotland advances to a form of fiscal federalism (so-called “devo-max”), or more devolution short of that position, the gap between the powers its Parliament will possess and those available in England outside London will have became a yawning chasm.
This prospect is viewed with acute unease in the north of England, where business leaders and politicians feel increasingly trapped between an assertive, powerful Scotland on the one hand and the economic and political clout of London on the other. Just as the devolution settlement of 1997 represented the unleashing of energies in the nations of the UK that had been blocked for years in the decaying Conservative Unionist state, so too the people of northern England may look to a new political settlement to remedy their political and economic marginalisation.
Last week’s local council elections hardened the north-south divide. Labour added to its control of the big northern cities, sweeping up a host of other urban seats (in some areas, such as Knowsley, local government has become a one-party state), while the Conservatives retreated further and the Liberal Democrats were routed. This has left Labour as the only party that can now plausibly claim to be truly national in reach. Its success in the Midlands, strong showing in the Greater London Assembly and gains in the south mean that, while it remains a long way short of its 1997 high water mark, it is uniquely able to straddle the shifting terrains of devolution politics in the UK as a whole.
As such, it bears a significant responsibility for crafting a new constitutional and democratic settlement for the Union. The Liberal Democrats are too enfeebled, the Conservatives too conservative. It falls to Labour to put itself at the head of those forces that can be marshalled to the cause of a new democratic politics – one that advances the case for greater devolution, not separation for Scotland; gives voice to Englishness and the claims to power of its cities and counties; and draws the nations of the United Kingdom and their representativeness into new political relationships at Westminster.
It cannot do this alone, nor should it. Pluralism is the essence of democratic reform. But without Labour, there is no prospect of renewed progress.
Nick Pearce is the director of IPPR