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What role would mayors play under a Labour government?

The opposition has promised a wave of devolution in England.

By Jack Shaw

In Gordon Brown’s recent report of his Commission on the UK’s Future, the former prime minister suggested that a democratic second chamber – a so-called assembly of the nations and regions – should be established by the Labour Party if it wins the general election.

According to the proposals, mayors should be able to participate in a reformed House of Lords – though in what form remains unclear. Constitutional questions have already been raised over whether mayors should be rooted in both the sub-regions they’re elected to serve and in Westminster.

Brown’s recommendations also suggest the assembly should be complemented by a council of the nations and regions to promote coordination between the respective tiers of government within the UK. But while the Lords requires reform, and a Labour government would need to work more closely with mayors, having the latter join the upper house solves neither of those challenges. 

Labour already has a reasonable track record on reform of a House that was, until the House of Lords Act 1999, home to hundreds of hereditary peers. The act reduced their number to 92. The House of Lords Appointments Commission was established to vet candidates, though its efficacy has been called into question on more than one occasion, not least following the peerage for the Russian-British newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev. Labour has also flirted with electing – rather than appointing – Lords in the past, with a published white paper on reform in 2007 overtaken by the global financial crisis.  

Labour’s emerging plans on Lords reform – to strengthen the House of Lords Appointments Commission, introduce a mandatory retirement age, and abolish hereditary peerages – today are arguably less ambitious than in the Noughties. In the preface of the 2007 white paper, Jack Straw, then leader of the House of Commons, wrote that “ending this anomaly” of hereditary peers “does not go far enough to ensure that Britain’s second chamber is fit to meet the demands and expectations of this century”.

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But Labour’s proposals for Lords reform, at least in the immediate term, are sufficient. Instead of using up considerable governing capacity to push for more wholesale changes, Labour should focus on the second question raised by Brown: coordination between tiers of governance – and specifically the role of mayors. 

[Read more: How radical will Keir Starmer be on constitutional reform?]

While Labour has rightly placed improving the long-term performance of the economy at the centre of its missions, its capacity to boost growth is contingent on circumstances partially outside its direct control. This is because combined and local authorities will have to implement many policies: and mayors can play an important role in promoting economic growth in their sub-regions.

Labour mayors currently oversee many of England’s core cities – not least Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Cambridge. They will, in theory, be tasked with delivering the growth policies Labour has envisioned, including its green prosperity plan.

For this reason, Labour will need to establish productive relationships with mayors and a wider coalition of actors whose actions Labour does not directly control. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour does formally acknowledge sub-regional governance within its party structures by having a local government representative on its shadow cabinet, but neither Labour nor the Conservatives have mayors in their cabinet teams – or anything approaching the formalised relationships that have been established with local authorities over the decades. 

History suggests that strong or charismatic individuals have wielded significant power in driving devolution forward: Michael Heseltine, John Prescott, George Osborne, Michael Gove. While there is a sense that Labour acknowledges the role mayors can play in a Labour government, there isn’t a senior party figure in the shadow cabinet this priority coalesces around. The Centre for Cities think tank suggests that Ed Balls can be “Labour’s Michael Heseltine” – the former shadow chancellor has, like the former Thatcher-era environment secretary, worked extensively on the cause of narrowing regional inequalities. But Balls isn’t in parliament. Nor does he currently hold any elected office. In the absence of such a figure, Labour will need to govern through institutions instead.  

The establishment of a codified forum through which differences can be articulated and resolved is in the interest of both a Labour government and its mayors. This forum – which the Times columnist Patrick Maguire dubs a “super-cabinet” of mayors – can add value to Labour’s policymaking, foster goodwill, promote collaboration, address political differences and support Labour in delivering its missions.

A more responsive centre requires pluralism, and voices from actors outside Westminster. There is precedent for this in the UK: figures from the devolved administrations in the Senned and Holyrood already sit on a joint ministerial committee with the UK government. But a similar vehicle does not exist for English sub-regional governance. 

In turn, Labour must give mayors their backing and build a relationship with them that is based on parity. Labour must respect, for example, the fact that mayors have their own democratic mandate and will on occasion adopt positions at odds with the leadership. If Labour were to only support devolution on the condition that mayors agreed with ministers, then that is no devolution at all. 

Labour equally cannot take the electoral success of its mayors for granted. In 2025, the seats occupied by Labour’s most vulnerable mayors – in the West of England, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, respectively – will be contested. On top of that, four new mayoral combined authorities will be created for the first time – in Norfolk, Suffolk, Hull and East Yorkshire, and Greater Lincolnshire. It is likely that new Conservative mayors will become important political forces and potential electoral assets for the Tory party in their regions. 

Building relationships with mayors is essential if the next government is to capitalise on local governments’ ability to shape their economies. That will require building relationships that outlast individuals, and institutions that are well placed to take advantage of the new politics of devolution. 

[Read more: Does devolution boost growth?]

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