The success of the NHS Covid vaccine roll-out should not blind us to the failures that meant Britain suffered the worst recession of any major economy and the highest death toll in Europe. Local government did an extraordinary job in getting communities through the Covid-19 pandemic. Communities themselves stepped up like never before, with a four-fold increase in volunteering and mutual aid groups springing up across the country.
It was the Conservative government that let them all down. Rishi Sunak broke his promise to fully compensate councils for the cost of Covid, leaving them instead facing a £2.5bn funding gap that’s already led to cuts and job losses that are hampering the country’s economic recovery and have left the future of our high streets in question.
The pandemic exposed two major problems affecting the UK: the chasm of inequality and the failings of an over-centralised state.
Covid disproportionately affected BAME communities, poorer neighbourhoods, and the lowest-paid workers because they were already disadvantaged by inequality. Households living in overcrowded homes were more at risk of infections spreading, and some low-paid or casual workers were afraid to get tested in case they were asked to self-isolate and couldn’t afford the loss of pay. Structural inequality led directly to the UK’s shockingly high death toll.
The government’s centralised decision-making led to failures in PPE distribution, testing, contact tracing, shielding, and self-isolation payments. Decision makers in Whitehall simply didn’t have the understanding of local communities they needed and refused to work with public health and other professionals on the front line.
Over-centralised power meant ministers frittered away billions of pounds in crony contracts to Conservative Party donors that did little to tackle the pandemic. The vaccine roll-out worked because the NHS already had in place a more appropriate balance that allowed effective collaboration between decision makers at the centre and on the front line.
The UK is one of the most unequal countries in Europe, and the pandemic gave us a stark lesson in just how damaging that has become. We can’t rebalance the deep inequalities between regions and communities by directing change from the centre that got it wrong in the first place. We need to open up power if we want to build a fairer country.
Keir Starmer has announced a commission on the UK’s future to be led by the former prime minister Gordon Brown. It will engage the whole country in a debate about how we devolve power from Whitehall into the nations, regions, cities, towns and other parts of the country. But this can’t just be about shifting power from one set of politicians to another. Town halls that refuse to engage with their local communities can feel just as out of touch as Whitehall, while the best-performing councils actively involve local residents and service users in the decisions that affect them.
Devolution won’t deliver what we need without a strong focus on empowerment that gives people a voice and the power to use it in their community – a voice over the public services they use, and a voice in the workplace as we democratise the economy to make it work for everyone.
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Trying to control everything from Whitehall failed during the pandemic, and it’s also why so many parts of the country have been held back economically over recent decades. Different parts of the country lack the power they need to bring in investment, rebuild infrastructure, or upskill their workforce. Labour must offer a radical reshaping of the state to make our country fairer.
The Conservatives are pulling the country apart – that’s obvious from the visible inequalities of health, wealth, education and opportunity that now divide us. It’s shocking that the UK, the sixth-wealthiest country in the world, includes some of the very poorest regions in Europe. It’s shocking that, in the middle of a global health pandemic, the Conservatives are cutting back social care for older people in many parts of the country by making funding dependent on council tax, which raises less money in poorer areas.
Even new funding schemes like the Levelling Up Fund put back only a fraction of the investment the Conservatives took away in the first place, and ministers have skewed funding towards richer areas like Richmondshire in North Yorkshire while poorer communities like Barnsley and Salford are deprioritised.
The inequalities that hold the country back arose because of the inequality of power that underlies them. That lack of power prevented people from protecting themselves, their families, their communities and their regions. Countries that become unequal become weaker because they fail to tap into everyone’s potential and have to pay the costs of inequality in dealing with higher levels of crime, family breakdown and ill health. Making Britain more equal isn’t just a moral imperative, it’s the way to make the country more successful.
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The devolution debate cannot be about which politicians get to exercise power. It must be a debate about the nature of our democracy and challenge our politicians to trust the people. Politicians will only rebuild the shattered trust in politics by opening up power so everyone can play a bigger part in the decisions that shape their lives.
Democracy is under threat from right-wing populist nationalism in many advanced countries because our top-down model of democracy failed to ensure people across the country benefitted from automation, and globalisation, and failed to protect them from the consequences of the global financial crisis.
We can’t simply offer people a return to a failed status quo. Our democracy and the institutions that sustain it must evolve so power is more open and participative. At the next general election, Labour must win power to give power away because that is how we can build a more equal country.
This article originally appeared in the Spotlight supplement on regional development. You can download the full edition here.