One week on from the local elections, and only now is the dust beginning to settle. For the Labour Party, the aftermath of the polls has been as keenly fought over as the campaign itself, as factions have sought to establish why the results support their view on the future direction of the party – either as a first step on the road back to power in 2020, or evidence that Labour is drifting towards a further decade in the wilderness.
But there is one area in which there is consensus amongst Labour politicians, members and supporters – the party did well within its urban heartlands, and the election of Labour mayors in London, Bristol and Liverpool represented some of the best results for the party for many years.
In an era of devolution, this matters even more than it would normally, because if a key question in the electorate’s mind remains ‘is Labour fit to govern?’, the party can provide an answer in the next four years through its leadership of England’s big cities.
Given this, you’d expect national and local Labour politicians to be fully supportive of the devolution agenda. After all, in practical terms, devolving more power out of Westminster to cities means transferring it from the hands of a Conservative government in Whitehall, to Labour-led town halls across the country.
And yet senior Labour figures remain sceptical of devolution. In part, this reflects a genuine philosophical debate within the party – can more freedom for individual places be squared with a desire to see greater equality, bolstered by redistribution from richer areas to poorer, and by national agreed standards for public service provision? But it’s also a response to this Government’s preferred model for devolution – in particular, their insistence on the introduction of ‘metro mayors’ as a condition of receiving more power.
Many within Labour insist that this top-down imposition of a metro mayor is not supported by the people living in urban Britain, and often misleadingly use the failed local authority mayoral referenda of 2012 – proposals which covered different geographies, and offered no additional powers – as evidence for this. And yet, new ComRes polling of more than 2,500 people across the five biggest city-regions due to introduce ‘metro-mayors’ in May 2017 shows there is strong public backing for strong city-region mayors – with a majority (57%) in favour of new mayors having greater powers than local councillors, and them taking the lead in addressing critical issues such as housing and transport in their areas.
Of course, the politics of devolution is not entirely straightforward. Devolution and the Northern Powerhouse are key policies of the Government (and the Chancellor in particular), and in a period of continued austerity the party is wary of the motivations driving the agenda, or of being seen to endorse it wholeheartedly. But unless something dramatic happens in the next 12 months, we will see elections for a new generation of metro mayors across the country – and Labour is likely to win the majority of those contests. Rather than focussing on how to undermine or oppose the devolution agenda nationally and locally, Labour would be far better campaigning on how to make the most of it.
Despite the recriminations of the past week, these local election results have reminded us that devolution presents a golden opportunity for Labour. If the party is serious about achieving power nationally in 2020, it must take advantage of its leadership of urban Britain in the next four years.
Ben Harrison is Director of Communications at Centre for Cities. He tweets @BenCities