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12 November 2014updated 09 Jun 2021 2:21pm

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.

By Jim McMahon Jim McMahon

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.

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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