A priority for the Labour party should be the transformation of the localist agenda that has assumed pride of place in the government’s plans for devolution in England. Concentrated heavily on metropolitan areas—‘city-regions’—particularly in the north of England, this agenda lacks both democratic legitimacy and the capacity to enhance local and national identities. Further, it threatens to exacerbate the north-south divide, which has always been a major obstacle to a shared sense of Englishness.
In effect, the government’s localist agenda has empowered local elites at the expense of the wider population. If Labour is serious about becoming the party of England, it should seek to reverse the fragmentation that has resulted from the Localism Act of 2011 and related legislation, much of the impetus of which came from the New Labour years. Only then will it be possible to address the question of how England as a nation is best represented in the era of devolution.
The government’s narrow economic perspective on regional devolution is apparent in the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act passed earlier this year; the act is primarily intended to reinforce the northern powerhouse idea, with HS2 as its backbone. On the second reading, Jon Trickett commented that it seemed as if much of the bill had been ‘shaped by no. 11 rather than being created in the great cities, counties and villages of England’. This is because economic growth is central to the new metropolitan mayoralties the act has opened up.
The concept of the mayoralty is itself problematic; as an American import, it lacks organic roots in English local government. As Fraser Nelson noted in the Daily Telegraph recently, only 15 out of 50 mayoral referendums since 2001 have backed establishing a mayor; but this has not prevented mayors being imposed on local populations, whether in cities, towns, urban districts (as in Tower Hamlets, notorious for the corruption centred on the office of the mayor), or even counties.
The mayoralties are designed to strengthen the combined local authorities that have continued to emerge from the enabling legislation: the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act of 2009. But as creations of secondary legislation given little parliamentary scrutiny, these authorities lack a popular mandate. The combined authority for the Tyneside area was established by the Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside, and Sunderland Order of 2014.
Like HS2, the 2009 Act was a product of the last year of the Labour government; and like HS2, it has not been popular. This is especially so in the north, where various attempts to devolve power to regional bodies since the 2004 referendum in the north-east of England—all with a strong business edge—have failed.
Local authorities have already been incentivised to attract local business by the Local Government Act of 2012, under which they now retain 50 per cent of business rates. Further pressure to attract investment under mayoralty schemes will sharpen divisions in England as competition between the new authorities intensifies. But the mayoralties at the heart of the recent act have the potential to generate division within the areas they encompass, too. The problems of rural areas remote from the regional capital are unlikely to be high on the mayoral cabinet agendas.
How should the Labour party seek to enhance local autonomy in England? First, it should recognise the opposition in England to the new powers that have been given to local politicians through backroom deals with the government. These deals take the form of the promise of projects and cash in return for implementing the government’s localist agenda. City elites—Labour as much as Conservative—seem eager to work with a Westminster government intent on leaving the regions to find their own economic feet in the aftermath of recession in exchange for more power; but how far this enthusiasm is shared is unclear.
Second, the Labour party needs to broaden the localist agenda, away from a primary concern with economic growth and towards the enhancement of civic engagement—particularly in the delivery of public services. Labour can learn much from the shortcomings of NHS Scotland and Wales, for example, where the service has declined markedly through control by politicians and managers in Edinburgh and Cardiff.
Third, Labour needs to pursue policies that will strengthen the richness and diversity of regional England, while at the same time integrating England into a national whole. This should be addressed at the level of resources, on the one hand, and the democratic structures of representation, on the other. A more even distribution of resources would be possible if plans for showpiece transport and infrastructure projects, such as HS2, with questionable public benefits were shelved. Likewise, the subsidy to Scotland through the Barnett formula should be reviewed now that Scotland has been given the power to set its own rate of income tax.
At the level of representation, a federal solution to the future of the United Kingdom would give institutional recognition to England’s distinctiveness as a nation, however complex its identity relative to its partner nations; it would also provide a basis for devolving power to genuine English communities rather than to agencies of local rule created by legislative fiat.
The Labour party should also become more sensitive in the candidates it fields in parliamentary elections, favouring those with local rather than metropolitan connections, and English as well as wider affinities. The success of this strategy was apparent in the by-election last December in Oldham. Local and national partialities are not the enemy of larger sympathies but their foundation.
More than a century ago, G.K. Chesterton was at a loss to explain how anyone could profess to love humanity while hating something so human as patriotism – devotion to the well-being of a particular place. This is a truth that Labour needs to recognise if it is to recover the ground it has lost in England to the ‘modernising’ trends of New Labour and the present Conservative government.