In pledging to unleash the potential of communities across our country, Ed Miliband looks like a prime minister in waiting, writes Richard Carr.
In pledging to unleash the potential of communities across our country, Ed Miliband looks like a prime minister in waiting, writes Richard Carr
Today Ed Miliband has put some meat on Labour’s localist bones. In pledging to unleash the potential of communities across our country, he is sketching out a genuinely reforming offer that looks beyond London and the South-East and can empower English communities from Cornwall to Durham. In doing so, he looks like a One Nation prime minister in the making.
This is sensible and practical policy. Though such ideas often make useful hooks, the case for localism is not ultimately predicated on anti-Westminster sentiment or a desire to butter-up the electorate. It just works in the brass tacks.
In our recent Fabian Review essay series ‘England Expects’, Dominic Rustecki and I argued that “where the local can be good for the national then devolution becomes not only desirable, it is a political necessity”. On transport, infrastructure and numerous other areas, local authorities have shown they can get solid return for the taxpayer’s money. It often makes sense to devolve.
And this is becoming ever more the case. As Hilary Benn notes in the afterword to our essays, any government of whatever hue will have to “change the way in which public money is spent, using it to best effect by supporting local collaboration between public bodies, rather that perpetuating duplication and overlap. Public services need to be run and organised around people and places, and not Whitehall silos and departmental boundaries”.
This is precisely the ‘politics of positivity’ we espouse.
Labour cannot simply shout ‘postcode lottery’ at every problem. That is not to say there should not be a redistributive element in all of this. In the essays we argue that the proposed British sparkassen of local banks should be capitalised by a £20bn Financial Transaction Tax which would channel money from ‘the City’ to the cities (and beyond). But ultimately governments have to trust the people and their local representatives.
Besides, the assumption that devolution equals stagnation at best or decline at worst is not borne out by the post-crash years. In Germany, where the länder hold far greater autonomy than does English local government, the economy continued to grow at an average of almost 0.8 per cent between 2008 and 2012, compared to an average 0.4 per cent reduction in UK GDP.
Yes the latter part of this was induced by the coalition’s 2010 Comprehensive Spending review, but the point is that punitive actions from the centre have less impact if communities – through their local institutions – are able to shape their own destinies.
As Ed said today, “we need a prosperous London. But we need to build prosperity outside it too. Devolution to Scotland and Wales has clearly benefitted those nations. But today, every region in England outside London is below the national average when it comes to productivity”.
Much of this is indeed the politics of Jerry Maguire – with councils demanding the centre ‘show us the money’. In 1905 local authorities spent over £1 in every £2 of total public expenditure, now they spend just £1 in £4. The path from the former to the latter has clearly produced many positive trends, but this has not been universal.
Skills is a huge part of this story and Labour are right to pick up Lord Heseltine’s baton in this regard. Kenneth Baker on education and university technical colleges may be one more Conservative Labour should be engaging with more readily. We don’t want the UTCs to become like the post-war technical schools – given an initial push in 1944, but, by 1961, with less in operation than the contemporary number of Wimpy burger bars. Aligning regional skill sets with local business need has to be a key part of LEPs’ and similar institutions’ functions going forward.
In today’s speech, Ed Miliband has reclaimed the legacy of George Lansbury in the 1930s who prioritised skilled ‘handicraft’ production over the ‘money octopus’ of the City of London. Lansbury’s localism emerged from rejecting the notion that Labour was about introducing Orwellian ‘uniformity’ and instead argued it should promote difference and opportunity.
In an age where so many perceive politics and politicians as ‘all the same,’ there is much to be gained by unleashing the potential of local leaders across England.
Labour can and should be going further – and today must be the launch-pad to future measures. A National Devolution Council should be set up in shadow form by this autumn to audit Labour’s proposed new English Deal and hold any future government to its devolutionary word. New powers should also be devolved over stamp duty, and the borrowing cap to build new housing should be lifted.
The full list of proposals, some of which Labour have not yet fleshed out, are available here. But the Birmingham speech is a huge and welcome step.
I’ve said on these pages previously that Labour’s policy vacuum of late has not been helpful, both in creating the space for a Farage to flourish and in making the party look purely reactive in the face of broadly improving economic conditions. Today’s address is of a different sort. It is genuinely interesting and welcome stuff. This is the Ed Miliband people want to see.
Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin UniversityLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.