“Labour will rebuild broken Britain with big reforms, not big spending,” wrote Keir Starmer in the Guardian last weekend. “A serious, properly thought-through rewiring and a big shift in mindset. Away from the sticking plaster politics of recent years and towards a strategic, long-term approach.”
Reform rather than spending may be a difficult sell to voters though, considering what more than a decade of austerity has done to the state of public services – a crumbling NHS, a stagnant, unproductive economy, and infrastructure crippled by underfunding and staff shortages. Labour’s weakness is traditionally the economy, but the leadership is trying to be as clear as possible that it will not be taking out its chequebook any time soon. Instead, systems must be reformed to ensure long-term, sustainable progress.
Labour must be prepared to show how reform can change the future. Because many will be disappointed by the party’s fiscal conservatism, the public will need to see how specific policy areas can benefit from this approach.
But where can reform, not spending, make the most difference? Look no further than Labour’s housing and devolution policy. As the shadow secretary for levelling up, Lisa Nandy has given clear examples of how reform could turn around Britain’s chronic lack of house-building.
First, consider planning reform. Back in June, Nandy gave the keynote speech at the Housing 2023 conference in Manchester, where she set out Labour’s intention to “rethink” a planning system “hated by developers and communities alike”. “Long, bureaucratic and slow processes that often turn on arcane details and mired in party politicking create uncertainty and delay for developers and investors,” Nandy said, before setting out a raft of reforms that would tilt the planning system in favour of builders and communities. Labour would also reintroduce local house-building targets and make it easier to build on the greenbelt.
Housing developers have long complained about the UK’s archaic planning system. A 2020 government white paper said that the UK’s growth potential was “artificially constrained” by the “outdated and ineffective planning system”. Planning systems are complex and arbitrary, with decisions often based on discretion and with plenty of opportunities for “Nimbys” to intervene. Developments may be blocked, seemingly at will, by campaigners or councillors – or MPs – motivated by politics.
As a result, the Conservatives are presiding over a housing shortage that is placing further stresses on the cost of living. Rishi Sunak shelved Liz Truss’s planning changes, which included house-building targets, when he became Prime Minister. Labour has taken the strategic decision to brand itself as the party of builders by relaxing those planning laws and promising to enforce local targets.
[See also: Labour’s fiscal paradox]
Then there are Labour’s devolution plans. Starmer announced in January about a “take back control” bill that would “spread control out of Westminster”, devolving “new powers over employment support, transport, energy, climate change, housing, culture, childcare provision and how councils run their finances”.
The Labour leader emphasised this was not about public spending, but reform. The plans, devised from recommendations made by the Gordon Brown commission on the constitution, would give local communities more say over how their budgets are spent and flip the presumption of power to decentralisation. Such a bill would legally oblige the government to either give local authorities more power, or, if that is not possible, offer a timetable for when and how it could be done.
Since Boris Johnson’s departure as prime minister, levelling up has all but disappeared from the list of government priorities and Treasury orthodoxy dominated. Andy Street, the Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, criticised the levelling-up bidding process for funds as “broken” and called for an end to the Westminster “begging-bowl culture”.
But Labour is prepared to tackle this issue. Speaking at a Labour conference fringe event in Liverpool last year, Nandy criticised the Conservatives for creating “chances for some places” but not choices for all. “In any democracy worth its salt we have the right to choose our own governance arrangements.”
Through the take back control bill, Labour would be able to alter the mechanics of devolution without needing to commit to huge financial commitments. While devolution deals are not without cost, stronger local governance can create jobs. The legislative tweaks proposed by Nandy could be transformative for previously neglected regions across the UK.
She is expected to unveil more policies at Labour’s conference this autumn. So far, the shadow minister has shown that the party is prepared to remove barriers to local growth and, as both her and Starmer have explicitly said, give power away. But if Starmerism is as much about the “how” as it is the “how much”, the party’s levelling-up proposals show the party can be radical without breaking the bank.
[See also: How Labour can be radical for free]