Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Seeking the new Chamberlain

Labour should seize the chance to bring about a new age of  powerful city politics in Britain

Corporation Street in Birmingham is a testament to the power of local authorities and civic leaders of the calibre of Joseph Chamberlain to shape cities.

Under the sweeping authority of the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Act of 1875, and with Baron Haussmann’s remodelling of Paris as a recent example, Chamberlain set about compulsorily buying up the slums, demolishing the squalid, jerry-built buildings, and fashioning anew the heart of Britain’s second city. In just three years as elected mayor, Chamberlain, still in his thirties, took Birmingham by the scruff of the neck.

As well as slum clearance, he built parks, libraries, public baths, schools, and brought the gas and water companies under democratic control. He forcibly rehoused the inner-city slum dwellers in the suburbs. The death rate of Birmingham’s poorest people dropped like a stone.

Between 1889 and 1965, the London County Council, like the Birmingham Corporation, had sweeping powers. By the 1930s, the LCC had responsibility for children’s adoption, treatment of venereal disease, midwifery, licensing boxing matches, racecourses and concerts, coroners and inquests, preventing the Thames from flooding, primary and secondary schools and training colleges, aerodromes, ferries, bridges and subways, and the London Fire Brigade.

The 1945 Labour victory was the death-knell for these localist powerhouses. Simon Jenkins blames Margaret Thatcher for hoovering up even more powers for Whitehall, in what he calls ‘the nationalisation of Britain’. The crumbs of democracy cast down to a handful of cities by Tony Blair and David Cameron came from a table groaning with municipal powers centralised since 1945.

Despite the enthusiasm of Blair and Cameron for directly elected mayors, our current handful lack anything like the powers enjoyed by Chamberlain. Most are as obscure as the council leaders they replaced. Who can name the elected mayors of Bedford, Mansfield, Torbay or Doncaster? In London, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone argued about bus fares, but neither had done much to transform the lives of Londoners. We will see what Joe Anderson and Ian Stewart, Labour’s newly elected mayors in Liverpool and Salford, can do for their cities. In London, Labour must contemplate life without Livingstone, for the first time in 30 years.

Referendums were held in Bradford, Bristol, Coventry, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Sheffield and Wakefield. The people voted ‘no’ to mayors across the board, with the noble exception of Bristol. Urban Britain, it seems, is not enamoured of the idea of more politicians over their heads. In Birmingham it seemed like civic politics was coming alive once more. Liam Byrne had focused his campaign on jobs, jobs and more jobs. Siôn Simon had come up with a 10-point plan, including 30,000 more jobs, 20,000 more houses, reducing the death rate, and recruiting more special constables. The ‘no’ vote in Birmingham means the end for such bold ambition.

With Cameron’s mayoral policy in shreds, what should Labour do now? In the future, the timorous manifestos of our mayoral candidates, with their modest pledges on jobs, houses and police, will seem laughably cautious. The next generation of Labour mayors should look to the Victorians for inspiration. This was the age, Tristram Hunt tells us in Building Jerusalem, ‘when the idea of the city was at the heart of public debate. When Gothicism, romanticism, socialism, and a host of competing intellectual currents carved out the perimeters of the Victorian civic vision … the age which confirmed above all the historic truth that vibrant civic life has always been fundamental to an intellectually adventurous society.’

Labour must look, not only to the gas-and-water socialists who transformed public health and literally breathed life into their cities, but also to the civic visionaries who created great public squares, parks, art galleries, museums, libraries and town halls.

The next Labour government should bring in a bill to install mayors in every city. Ministers must pass sweeping powers to mayors, to make them the most powerful person in their city. More powerful than police commissioners, NHS managers, council chief executives and the managing director of Tesco. Enough nonsense about partnership working and consultation. Mayors should have executive powers to raise money, tell people what to do, make big decisions and be accountable for them. In New York, Michael Bloomberg has a budget of $50bn a year, employs 250,000 staff, and runs all the city’s services including education and policing. ‘Boris bikes’ are hardly in the same league.

A Labour city-mayoral manifesto which promised to demolish the postwar concrete horrors, to return cities to people, not cars and lorries, to bring green spaces and waterways back into the city centres, to create new public works of art, to make space for children, not just Clinton Cards and KFC, to reimagine the very idea of urban living: now that would be a manifesto worthy of Joe Chamberlain himself. We have some way to go.


Photo: Elliott Brown

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  • Oh dear. This is the type of bureaucratic centralism our party should be moving away from. Ignoring the verdicts of so many major cities is hardly a rallying cry for the next general election, is it?

    The article bears the whiff of some particularly sour grapes. How dare the voters have the temerity to reject the plans for elitist career development programmes.

    Instead of focusing on peripheral issues, we should get to grips with the real dilemmas facing local authorities, who are being given more responsibilities while at the same time having far fewer resources to carry them out. Meanwhile thousands of families live in sub-standard accommodation and local privatised transport companies are slashing services to the bone.

    The previous government had far too little to say about key concerns such as housing and transport. The task for us now should be to ensure the next government carries out the remedies that are desperately needed.

    Local government may then be seen as making a real difference to people’s quality of life.

  • but Chamberlain was NOT a directly elected Mayor , he was a Ward councillor elected by his fellow councillors to lead the Council, similarily with Herbert Morrison in London.

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