Labour needs a distinctive and radical offer for England

As the party looks to respond to the referendum at party conference, Labour needs a distinctive and radical offer that delivers for England.

As the party looks to respond to the referendum at party conference, Labour needs a distinctive and radical offer that delivers for England

To paraphrase the Winston Churchill of 1940, the battle for Scotland is over, the battle for England is about to begin.

Manoeuvres are ongoing. Nigel Farage is wandering around SW1 giving all too plausible remarks on the imbalance of the Barnett formula. David Cameron is pressing on English votes for English MPs.

And, in response, Labour is fumbling. Ed Miliband gave a speech in which he called for change thirteen times. He also gave an interview to Sky News saying that he’d have to see what the prime minister proposes on the West Lothian question.

This is unhelpful at best. Labour needs to be ahead on this issue. If they don’t get out in front then Lynton Crosby might as well run up the ‘£1,600 of YOUR money subsidises Scotland’ leaflets for the southern marginals this afternoon.

In previous areas where Miliband has led – Murdoch and energy bills – he’s garnered positive write-ups. On the question of English devolution we need more of Miliband the pro-active adventurer, not merely the responder to the opinion of others.

As John Denham has rightly noted, Labour already has a ready-made alternative here – if it grows the courage. He writes that ‘England is far too centralised and any new settlement should ensure that fewer English decisions are taken in Westminster at all. Not so much reducing Scottish influence in Westminster as taking English decisions out of Westminster.’

He’s right – and in pledging to devolve £30bn worth of spending out of Whitehall Labour has already staked a flag in this terrain. It should go further – both on powers and funds.

There is a tactical benefit here – devolving to councils is the positive offer that can get them out of any negative fudges around Barnett and/or parliamentary votes. If the question of Westminster reform is difficult, change the question.

But this is about more than tactics, for Jamie Reed is also on the money: ‘in Labour’s heartlands, even given the disproportionately levied misery of austerity, the party must seek to lead these regions with a vision based upon new ambitions, not by wallowing in historic industrial decline and injustice’.

The days of just dumping a wodge of central cash down the funnel of a northern town hall roof must begin to transition towards greater self-sufficiency.

This is certainly not risk free. The charge that localism will bring inequality of outcome is one some within the Labour movement will be uncomfortable with. Councillors are of course democratically elected, live (permanently) within the constituency they serve, and are functioning institutions (unlike, say, regional assemblies). But still some protest.

Importantly however, a re-drawn UK does not mean a total end to re-distribution; far from it. The vast proportion of the UK’s income tax and national insurance receipt is generated in England. England’s south-west has more higher rate tax payers than the whole of Scotland. Redistribution within England, even if Scotland received total control over income tax, is still more than possible.

In its early stages, greater devolution to our councils will also crucially involve a degree of pump-priming from the centre. As IPPR noted last week, doing all of this in one fell swoop is unwise.

The centre has been poor at growing the north – the length of time successive governments dithered on promoting rail investment between the major northern cities, for instance, was a national scandal. In some areas the coalition has not gone far enough in localising power, but in others the pace has been overly hasty. This process needs to be carefully managed.

But we need a shift in emphasis. As Dominic Rustecki and I have argued previously, devolution needs to be permanently hard-wired into the political process.

On top of any initial settlement, Labour should therefore pledge to form a National Devolution Council to audit the government of the day’s record on passing powers down, and suggest powers that could be devolved in the coming years. Devolving stamp duty receipt (to encourage the building of new homes), greater Earn Back deals regarding the local retention of the proceeds of growth, and increased powers to borrow should also be announced.

The latter is really interesting. One criticism of Labour localising powers is that it will see a centre-left government empower Tory councils (albeit the latter, as mentioned, still democratically elected after all). But the flip-side is that in times of economic difficulty Labour councils could be empowered to take a more Keynesian approach to their areas. Local autonomy cuts both ways.

More philosophically though, if the argument is that politicians are innately fallible, surely the one thing you wouldn’t do is concentrate power in the hands of a homogeneous group of just 650 people. Time served at Portcullis House should not be the path to office it so clearly is. 68 per cent of people in England live outside London and the South-East yet Westminster’s spending dwarfs that of councils by over four to one.

This needs addressing – and not by creating an institution in Sheffield or York that sits just as remotely from many people as the House of Commons.

Let’s reward those who already have and are delivering. Councillors have juggled 30 per cent+ real term cuts in this parliament adroitly. They have connections to local business communities, and are pooling powers upwards through combined authorities and LEPs.

Local government is already ‘doing’ power a good deal more organically and creatively than some in Westminster. It has a record on which to build.

As the party looks to respond to the referendum at party conference then, Labour needs a distinctive and radical offer that delivers for England. This does not have to be about creating the new, but re-thinking the old.

And, rather than tweaking with Westminster, Miliband can play the broader game. If he really wants to deliver ‘change,’ the Labour leader can start by empowering his ‘friends’ in council halls up and down England.

This may not involve each and every proposal outlined here, but it needs to be more than the familiar refrain of ‘the prime minister just doesn’t get it’ or ‘we need real change’.

Let’s have some substance, at least an indication of what both Labour’s red lines are, and what they may do in eight months time. England, it is increasingly clear, expects.

Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit, Anglia Ruskin University, and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. He has recently published the book One Nation Britain

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72 Responses to “Labour needs a distinctive and radical offer for England”

  1. 137point036

    There are two separate questions: (1) what is “it” that is subjected to a final vote and (2) how wide is the net of final voters for/against “it”. You are saying that the realistic answer to (2) is a referendum. You may be right. I am concerned about the substance of “it”. The final vote may be a simple yes/no but the “it” will be a 5000 page document on the constitution. That will define jobs and compensation. I am saying that anyone (.i.e. UK MPs today) who votes on the definitions (the “it”) should be excluded from taking those jobs themselves. That will leave plenty of people (all the non-MPs) eligible for those jobs.

  2. Leon Wolfeson

    One, I see that as an artificial difference. Two, you’re artificially creating a situation where people who do certain types of job will be banned from picking up their career after being a MP.

    It’s encouraging, not discouraging, career politicians.

  3. 137point036

    “One” – you do not think the process will have two or more stages to it? That makes it a very big mouthful. “Two” – that is exactly the situation that I want to create. That is the only way to keep them honest. If you have a better way to stop them cheating on the design, let us all know.

  4. Leon Wolfeson

    So by disallowing people who have a career serving rather than ripping off the public, you think this keeps “them” honest.

    And yes, very simply, I’d disallow the revolving consulting door and not worry at all about people going back to being GP’s or lawyers.

  5. 137point036

    I hope it will keep them honest. The evidence suggests that MPs (and Congressman) are not very honest. So, I am not in favour of letting them spec their own jobs and their own pay.

    I am worried that the current MPs will create a new constitution which gives them job security and benefits which they would not support for the rest of us. If they know in advance that they will not be getting those jobs, they will be less inclined to feather bed them (I hope).

    If MPs (and Congressmen) are selfless protectors of the general public, then I am worrying too much.

  6. Luke Silburn

    I think Germany is the more appropriate model to use. They are properly federal and appear to have made a decent fist (not perfect mind – integration still has a way to go) of incorporating the 5 ex-DDR states into their system.

  7. Luke Silburn

    “The only problem with Labours regional devolution plan is, if we devolve power to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions, do we really need a full time UK parliament anymore?”

    Why is this a problem? The tories were after a slimmed down commons until the LDs put the kibosh on it – why not revive the idea and pair it with a ‘House of Regions’ to replace the Lords?

  8. Luke Silburn

    Absolutely anything proposed should be going to a referendum. How to structure the referendum question(s) will be tricky however (and subject to trickery).

    Also, the real triumph of the Scottish Referendum was not the outcome of the vote but the fact that the Scots were so engaged by the process and fired up to do something about it.

    I’ve no idea about how to go about achieving such engagement, but that’s what needs to happen in England as well.

  9. Leon Wolfeson

    So you’re determined to attack public service, which hasn’t been shown to be a problem, rather than fighting lobbying. Hmm.

  10. 137point036

    Where have I attacked public service? I just want to be protected against people – in any job – having the ability to right their own ticket. It is a temptation that politicians here and elsewhere have shown that they cannot resist.
    There is a huge reservoir of talent waiting to take the places of the MPs who will write the new constitution. I want the new talent to do a good job. I am for public service, not against it.

  11. Leon Wolfeson

    Where have they “shown that” here? What jobs in the NHS or civil service have MP’s gone on to take?

    You are frantically fighting civil service, and deliberately ignoring the real issues of lobbying and company boards. Private companies.

  12. 137point036

    Did I say that MPs have taken jobs in the public sector? I am only against them continuing in jobs as MPs when, as MPs, they set the terms and conditions for MPs.

    I am not fighting the civil service. I have nothing to say about the civil service. Just about MPs.

    Lobbying and company boards are problems. But they it seems a stretch to connect them to the constitutional debate.

  13. Leon Wolfeson

    MP’s set public sector terms and conditions, like it or not.

    You’re promoting the idea of career politicians.

  14. 137point036

    Your first sentence defines the problem that I am trying to solve. I am trying to solve it because I do not like it.

    I struggle to see how you can get to your second sentence. What did I say that that even hints at that? Career politicians are OK. But OK does not mean that they should be able to spec their own job and own pay. They have fallen to temptation in the past.

  15. Leon Wolfeson

    Why on earth don’t you like the idea of democratic control of terms and conditions for public sector workers?!

    Their OWN jobs and pay as MP’s is quite seperate from, as I’ve said, a MP going back to work, *after* being a MP, as say a NHS Doctor, something you’re apparently frantic to prevent!

  16. 137point036

    What have I said that supports either of the two charges against me?

  17. Leon Wolfeson

    That’d be your posts.

  18. 137point036


  19. Leon Wolfeson

    That’s nice.

  20. 137point036

    That means a lot to me, coming from a pro like you. I worried that you might take it to heart. Clean break. Bye.

  21. Leon Wolfeson

    I’m not trying to take your job as a “pro”, though.

    Which seems to be on another account by your post history. We’ll meet again, no doubt.

  22. Toque

    An English parliament with regional grand committees that sit in the region.

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