While attention is rightly focused on Scotland at the moment, a few rumblings over the future of devolution in England have been occurring and look likely to increase in volume after this week.
A discussion about localism has barely started – a couple of reports proposing decentralisation and place-based budgets , a few articles and some Twitter chat about the possibility of an England not run from the centre. But old habits die hard and scepticism about the localist agenda, particularly on the left, is never far away. Polly Toynbee’s article today perfectly and articulately encapsulates this stance. It is a view I respect because it comes from the heart and reflects a real desire to overcome the poor life chances that exist for too many in our society. But it is a view I feel we need to challenge as it goes to the heart of how we as progressives get things done, and what we as a party should do with power once we gain office.
The argument has several strands, each of which raise genuine concerns but which collectively amount to a failure of imagination and an inability to envisage a different future. If they are allowed to go unanswered there is a danger they will constrain our ability as a party to express a vision that is relevant, exciting and radical.
First, and most importantly for Labour, the question is posed: ‘Wouldn’t localism increase inequality?’ This charge does not recognise the correlation between our current highly centralised state and highly unequal society, nor the international evidence of more devolved national systems correlating with more equality, or even the postcode lotteries that exist despite our dominant one-size-fits-all approach to public services. Poverty, inequality and poor life chances are highly complex, interwoven issues which require sophisticated not simplistic responses. The Whitehall machine is a blunt instrument. The income transfers relied upon by a Labour government committed to ending child poverty can be undone swiftly by a determined Tory-led government. High levels of spending on public services cannot survive a financial crash and global recession. So giving local areas the levers to create growth, the ability to invest in people’s capacity to take advantage of new opportunities and rebalancing our skewed national economy are all routes to a more sustainable strategy to overcome inequality we should take seriously.
Then poor performance in councils is held up as a reason not to localise: ‘What about Tower Hamlets?’ sums up the refrain. But failures of governance are just that – failures. There is no excuse for them and they must be tackled head-on. That they have happened within a highly centralised system is a nuance too far for this narrow view. So centralisers would retain a system of governance that weakens local government, asks councils to be no more than managerial arms of a Whitehall super-state, and forces them to prioritise the administrative demands of a top-heavy governance hierarchy. Then the centre blames councils for being weak, overly bureaucratic and detached from communities. And the circular argument becomes self-fulfilling: each subsequent shortcoming in local government adds weight to the argument not to devolve, while failures at the centre – IT systems disasters, the work programme, benefit over-payments and clawbacks– never seem to dent the viability of a centralised state.
Failures of governance locally are seen as systemic rather than isolated, while failures of governance at the centre are isolated not systemic. And the status quo holds.
But in recent years there have grown challenges to the centralised modus operandi of the left – while in opposition nationally, where Labour is in power locally they have been finding new ways of putting our values into practice despite financial constraints. The creativity coming from Labour local government has been recognised within the wider Labour movement and informed a good amount of thinking as part of Labour’s policy review.
But this seems to only take us so far before the question is asked: What about Tory councils? According to this view, while Labour councils may well be innovating and delivering for their residents, but as long as some areas elect Conservative councils why would Labour nationally cede hard-won power to them? Yet the case for localism (the ‘how’) does not have to detract from nationally determined strategic outcomes (the ‘what’) – the Local Government Innovation Taskforce set out how this could work when Labour is in government. Empowering local areas with real decision-making capability can create more space for effective local leadership to articulate and fulfil compelling visions for local communities. This can only enliven local democracy, encourage more participation and higher turnouts to create a virtuous circle whereby local electoral success requires broader mandates and support built across the community. This will create more, not fewer, opportunities for Labour locally.
So as many of us in England hold our breath for a ‘No’ vote on Thursday, whatever the outcome, on the other side lies uncharted constitutional territory. There is an opportunity now to build a statecraft which offers greater legitimacy for people and that is capable of responding to the messy complexity of the challenges our country faces. Let’s try to imagine a future not bound by preconceptions and tired methods but one that genuinely opens up to new possibilities – of bringing power closer to people and empowering them to shape their own destinies.
Jessica Studdert is political adviser to the LGA Labour Group. She tweets @jesstud
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