Labour must falter no more on real devolution
—One of the few silver linings that follow a defeat as unequivocal as Labour’s in May is the window of opportunity for brutal honesty. No longer obliged to defend every letter of past leaderships, and not yet tied to the narrative of a new leader, now is the chance for brave voices within the party to own up to our errors and make bold pitches for change. Peter Mandelson was right to imply last month that Labour conceded too much to the Tories on the northern economy. We lost possession of the ball on home turf.
In the first two terms of the last Labour government, we set the wheels in motion for a fundamentally more equal geographic distribution of power and wealth-creation. We established the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly; we engineered the regional reorientation of a growth industry in creating Media City. We directed more resources to northern metropolitan councils; we encouraged significant regeneration in major cities like Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester and Sheffield.
But our good intentions lacked boldness and clarity – there was no ‘northern powerhouse’-style brand, however vacuous that may currently be; no clear message to the FTSE that to succeed in Britain is to invest in the north. We offered sticking-plaster solutions on transport and infrastructure, rather than reimagining major pathways as a whole. We made the right noises on greening our manufacturing industries, but failed to get in early enough to establish northern England as the Silicon Valley of the emerging low-carbon world.
Our confidence took some knocks. The dabble with regional assemblies was clearly rejected by the public. Rather than presume that they objected to an unnecessary layer of further administration and re-strategise to devolve decision-making without the red tape, we wavered. Then, as credit crunch became full-blown recession and we failed to prevent our record of economic competence being recharacterised, our self-doubt over investment in general crippled us: being labelled as overspenders made us falter on crafting a bigger picture. The vision was fractured, and in cities like Manchester, the builders left town.
In opposition, our appeal to the north was focused too exclusively on protecting the vulnerable from the ill-effects of austerity, and we failed to make transforming northern economies a dividing line. We did not just fail to vocalise ambition for individual families, we failed to vocalise ambition for cities and city-regions. We rightly stomped our feet about politicised council cuts disproportionately affecting the north, but failed to make regional growth our counter-argument. We had photo-opps at Nissan, but we hesitated over High Speed Two.
When George Osborne announced the landmark devolution deal for Greater Manchester, hesitancy from Labour nationally hampered local council leaders’ inclination to claim ownership of the project. We stumbled further when the Conservatives threw control of NHS budgets into the mix. The photograph of council leaders signing Osborne’s deal was unnecessarily awkward. Our smiles should have been greater than his.
The Tory government called our bluff on our attempts to invoke distrust in their intentions by placing the northern powerhouse front and centre of its first Queen’s speech. We may be right to have highlighted that there is, as yet, little meat on the bones, but we must now move swiftly from defence to offence, and propose a vision for an even greater transformation that acknowledges the United Kingdom’s future economic success depends on a vision of investment in which the boundaries of the M25 are no longer not so much a glass ceiling but a glass circumference.
The language being peddled by many from our own benches – that, by accepting devolution deals, Labour authorities are ‘doing the Tories’ dirty work’ or ‘playing into their hands’ – is as childish as it clichéd. If Labour is serious about transforming communities, changing lives, and unleashing opportunity, we can never refuse greater power simply because we find its origins ideologically inconvenient.
Education and skills should be at the core of a devolution agreement that goes even further. In my borough of Tameside, schools lag towards the bottom of the league tables, despite the local authority now diverting as much resource as is currently available into boosting standards. Forty-four per cent of our residents are only qualified to level one (five GCSEs), and a shocking 28 per cent have no qualifications at all. The economic implications of this are extreme and self-explanatory, both in terms of inevitable public spend, and lack of growth. We need genuine innovation and collaboration across our 10 boroughs, combined with strong political leadership.
Labour also needs to push for us to go further on devolved NHS powers. Tameside Hospital, which is in special measures, is currently operating a £25m budget deficit, and yet the route to reducing this – through prevention, early intervention, and efficient social care – lies in other people’s hands. We have made innovative beginnings locally by integrating the leadership boards of health trusts and council chiefs, but only unleashing the purse-strings from the national model and applying it throughout Greater Manchester will allow us to continue this journey at the necessary pace. The cost of alcohol dependency in Tameside is estimated at £98m or £448 per head of the population annually, among the highest in the UK. We cannot tackle this by working alone in a single authority with hands tied by ever-shrinking budgets in silos.
Reinvigorating northern economies does not contradict our need to win over more voters in the south; it fits with the need to become the party of aspiration and economic credibility once more. The UK remains one of the most geographically lopsided economies in the western world; the Tories have now understood the significance of this, and look set to run with it. I trust we will concede no further possession of the ball in what should be a home game for Labour. Any leadership candidate whose pitch on this is still faltering needs to heed Mandelson’s lesson, sharpish.
Claire Reynolds is a councillor on Tameside council
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.