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16 November 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 10:18am

Labour must set the terms of the devolution debate

George Osborne cannot get away with posing as a kind of lord high devolutioner.

By Alison McGovern

It is amazing how quickly ideas can come into fashion in political debate. Just a few years ago arguments about devolution of power and resources were confined to the margins of the conversation: a technocratic obsession for the insufferably wonky. Now devolution seems to be the only show in town. We have metro mayors of Manchester, extra powers for the Scottish assembly and the London mayoral contest seems to be a race to outbid each other for the extra powers they will demand. Even the inner sanctum of the Treasury seem to have caught the devo fever.

But fashions come and go, and the newfound enthusiasm for devolution remains skin-deep. There are two real dangers here for those of us who have been championing this agenda for a long time. The first is political. As my colleague Chuka Ummuna has argued, Labour must not let George Osborne get away with posing as a kind of lord high devolutioner, benevolently bestowing new powers on well-behaved local authorities. We must set the terms of the debate and make sure the Chancellor’s sloganeering does not obscure the real issues.

Yet it is the second danger that is the bigger worry. There is a risk that in the excitement of winning the argument on devolution, we lose sight of why we wanted it in the first place. We need to be clear about what devolution is not about. It is not a chance for a competition. This is not about kicking off a fight between us and other city regions, or between us ourselves. No good will come from cities in the north wasting time rowing with each other.

Take devolution in Liverpool, what I call devoscouse. A better train line between Liverpool and Manchester obviously benefits each place at either end. Same goes for new business opportunities. So we need to work together with the rest of the north, not against each other. No one city population is big enough to drive the economy of the north on its own: this is about all of us, not just some of us.

Devoscouse, then, is a chance for us to co-operate. And as a socialist, that suits me just fine. Our economic development needs us to plan for our future and work together for a growing, strong city. But how? Well, not the Osborne way, that’s clear. You shouldn’t be allowed to wax lyrical about the north if you are responsible for heaping cuts on the north, while you cushion the south of England. You shouldn’t be able to talk about any kind of power house while people in London receive 24 times the cash per head for transport investment than people in the north east.

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The whole point of devolution is that our cities do not have to be dependent on a Tory chancellor, our strength can come from within. To develop this strength we need to build up our financial, human and economic capital.

In economic terms, northern cities need greater control over capital budgets. In Liverpool we need capital to deal with brown field sites, both those that remain in the city centre, blighting what is otherwise a very successful city, and the wasted opportunities in the land that forms the perimeter – on both sides of the river – between downtown and the outer suburbs. For this we need business investment.

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Yet, our country’s financial capital – the City of London – often feels far away, and in its mindset, it is. Merseyside and the wider north west is dominated by manufacturing new and old, whereas the south is home to a larger service sector. One in ten in the north west work in manufacturing; one in 100 in London and the south east do. We should be looking to work with our northern financial sector, for example in Leeds, to build links and encourage investment.

Secondly, apart from financial capital, there is an even more pressing need: human capital. The skills we each have are the biggest determinate of the economic growth we will experience. And what’s more, our ability to turn economic growth into a plan to end poverty relies entirely on getting those with least chance in the labour market better opportunities. Social justice requires a coherent, workable skills plan for the city region.

Finally economic growth is not needed merely for its own sake. It is not virtuous by definition. We need growth for our city because of the people in it, and because we want them to lead a good and successful life. Economic growth that leaves some people behind is not good enough. Our society needs something more than just buildings and the chance to make a buck.

This is my final kind of capital that we must grow: social capital. We needed a shared purpose, a story of our city that everyone can be a part of, and a vision we can collectively work towards.

In Liverpool we make things and send them off around the world. It is what we do. Whether that is writing stories or inventing new technology, large scale manufacture or small creative business, at the moment, it feels like our city region is humming with new ideas. I think the next new idea could be a bigger vision of what we can be. 

In the past, our city came together – and still, unfailing, unites – to help us deal with tragedy and cope with adversities. That unity can now be our strongest foundation. In making things, we will secure our economic future, but, what’s more, we’ll have a purpose everyone can be a part of.

Alison McGovern is MP for Wirral South