Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The era of top-down politics is over

Liz Kendall has called for power to be devolved to the nations, cities, towns and counties of Britain. Speaking in Brixton this week, she committed to handing power to local communities and evoked the Labour party’s historic tradition of civic leaders, community organisers and workplace activists fighting against poverty and injustice.

She was absolutely right to stress that ‘our answer to too many of the problems we face as a county was to regulate, to restrict, to fix, or ban. Too often, we spoke as if the challenges facing Britain could be solved by Westminster politicians and Whitehall civil servants alone.’ She added that ‘buildings, laws and tax credits don’t create the conditions for a good life on their own’ with people also needing ‘a sense of power and control over their own lives’.

Drawing on specific examples in different parts of the country, she highlighted the successes of community land trusts, cooperatives and community energy projects where local people have taken control and worked together to improve their local services and communities. She also set out that, under her leadership, local authorities would be equal partners with ministers in agreeing a new settlement for devolved powers and responsibilities in every Treasury budget cycle.

I am backing Liz because she understands the huge scale of our defeat and she has been fearless in asking our party uncomfortable, searching and difficult questions. She has explored what Jon Cruddas has called the ‘dark places’. One such dark place was our unwillingness in government to trust our own colleagues in local government. We are one of the most centralized countries in Europe. For decades, successive governments have hoarded power in Whitehall. The uncomfortable truth is that the last Labour government was no different. While we invested heavily in local services such as schools, hospitals, Sure Start centres, Decent Homes, we rarely trusted councils or communities to make decisions locally or set their own priorities.

The Conservatives are trying to steal a march on the devolution agenda in Labour heartlands. George Osborne is touring the country negotiating deals with our people in local government. And yet this is a deeply centralising government, dictating to local communities about selling off social housing, trying to control 24,000 schools from Whitehall, imposing a centralised work programme that is failing to get people back to work because it does not take account of local needs.

That’s why Liz is right to focus on real devolution. Labour must offer an ambitious and more comprehensive approach to sharing power with the whole country rather than Osborne’s cynical series of one-off, divide-and-rule deals.

It is no surprise that Liz has received huge support from Labour councillors and council leaders. She does not just talk the talk, she is offering a genuinely radical approach to devolving power and giving people more control over their lives. The era of top-down politics is over. Working with our colleagues in local government, Labour must own the devolution agenda. It is time for us to turn the page on centralised control and re-energise our movement in communities across the country.


Emma Reynolds MP is shadow secretary of state for communities and local government. She tweets @EmmaReynoldsMP

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Emma Reynolds MP

is a former member of the shadow cabinet


  • Distributed power will work well for the regions, for councils and for people. It will pass decision making, and responsibility, to those that know the issues and who have to carry-the-can if things go wrong.

    There is one extra thing we might add to that idea, that is perfectly illustrated by how the brain works…

    The synapses are the response areas in the brain but and their effectiveness is vastly increased because of the cross connections between them. The brain learns by creating new cross links. So in this distributed system I do think we also need to have sufficient cross linking between those powerful bodies. Cross linking should not be laid down in laws that knot up the system, but in systems of support for best practice as illustrated by working systems. As Tony Blair said yesterday: by learning from all the good things Labour councils are doing around the country.

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