One of the lesser commented-on aspects of Labour’s manifesto launch this week was Ed Miliband’s declaration that Labour would be seeking to win power in order to give it away. At the core of Labour’s offer to the country is a pledge to give power back to people so that they can change things for themselves and end a century of centralisation, breaking out of the ‘Westminster knows best’ approach.
Labour’s manifesto is the culmination of an energetic and wide-ranging policy review which had thematic threads of decentralisation, power and community woven through it. Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young Lecture in early 2014 set out his vision for people-powered public services, reaching deep into Labour’s past to draw out its successes in reforming state institutions to overcome inequality and promote cooperation, which, he argued, is even more urgent to persevere with today.
The dynamic shape of Labour’s policy review – something of a devolved process in itself – created space for many voices to contribute. Labour local government participated directly through the Innovation Taskforce which set out the case against a traditional, largely centralised model of service design which has reached the limits of its efficacy, and a vision for how people-powered public services would work in practice. Andrew Adonis’ growth review set out a significant package of devolution to the cities and county regions of England as the key to a balanced economic recovery in which prosperity is shared more widely. Devolving power was a key part of the independent thinktank IPPR’s Condition of Britain report – launched by Miliband and Labour’s policy review architect Jon Cruddas – which saw big reform rather than big spending as key to rebuilding our economy and society.
At the core of Labour’s plan for devolution is a commitment to an English Devolution Act which would transfer £30bn of funding to city and county regions, alongside new powers over economic development, skills, employment, housing and business support. This universal offer to all parts of the country marks a clear break from the piecemeal devolution pursued by the coalition government. Certain Conservative county council leaders have expressed their frustration with their own party’s’ ‘narrowly focused’ devolution manifesto plans primarily geared towards large cities which will agree to have elected mayors, bypassing county and district areas.
Beyond this core offer, Labour’s manifesto demonstrates that its commitment to devolving more is more than a single policy; it will be a fundamental to how it expects to govern in practice. When Harriet Harman, Hilary Benn and Jim McMahon together signed Labour’s devolution pledge, this signified the joint local and national working partnership Labour is committed to bringing into government with a new English regional cabinet committee – chaired by the prime minister and attended by relevant secretaries of state and leaders of major cities and county regions.
A more respectful tone to relations with local government would not be hard to achieve after five years of Eric Pickles at the helm of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Yet Labour’s manifesto underpins this with policy substance too: it will restore fair funding across England, and longer-term funding settlements to better enable longer-term planning and local collaboration between services. This is part of a wider shift Labour intends to make towards investing to prevent social problems arising rather than wasting money reacting to them at a higher cost.
Labour’s manifesto envisages devolution of power and strengthened local accountability across all public service areas, breaking down the Whitehall siloed mentality that sees local government as something that is solely linked to CLG. The centrally devised and ineffective work programme will be succeeded by a replacement commissioned at a more local level. Health and care commissioning and budgets will be brought together at a local level to more effectively integrate services. And by abolishing police and crime commissioners strengthened community safety partnerships will give local people a role in setting priorities for neighbourhood policing.
Finally, perhaps most fundamentally – and the essence of people power – are commitments to share power with people so they can shape their services in response to their local circumstances, transforming the relationship between the citizen and the state. A model of citizenship based on participation and shared responsibility will be encouraged. A people-led constitutional convention will address devolution and political reform of Westminster. New opportunities to empower people in relation to the services they use will include local public accounts committees to drive value for investment.
This exciting vision for a different future and a more responsive, effective way of governing marks a clear break from the sort of devolution – primarily of blame and responsibility for funding cuts – we have seen under the coalition.
So – we have less than three weeks to win a Labour government on 7 May. Then on 8 May we can begin the process of giving that power away again.
Jessica Studdert is political adviser at the LGA Labour Group. She tweets @jesstud
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