Last week, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats launched their general election manifestos. All have endeavoured to demonstrate their localist credentials. However, the language and detail of each suggest anything but consensus or unequivocal commitment.
Devolution sits under ‘Our Precious Union’ for the Conservatives (both metaphorically and literally in the manifesto text), and their priorities here are clear. Arguing that the ‘devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast exercise greater powers than equivalent governments elsewhere in the world,’ they ‘envisage’, but don’t promise, that the devolved administrations’ powers will increase as the country leaves the EU. While previous governments have tended to ‘devolve and forget’, the Conservatives promise that their administration ‘will be an active government, in every part of the UK.’
Labour claim they ‘are the party of devolution’ and back this up with their pledge for a presumption of devolution for repatriated EU powers. They would also establish a constitutional convention, which would look at democracy locally, regionally and nationally, considering the option of a more federalised country. The Lib Dems will devolve repatriated powers along current responsibility lines, and would also have a constitution codified within two years of taking office.
English regional devolution
The Tories promise to ‘consolidate our approach… so that authorities operate in a common framework’ will please the many think-tanks that have called for such a framework. On the other hand, this will mean a continued wait for areas keen to sign a deal as soon as possible such as the Solent.
The Lib Dems offer ‘devolution on demand’ but make clear that mayoral authorities would have no privileges over other types of council. Mayors will not be imposed on rural areas in the Tory Manifesto (but will for cities), a change in policy, while Labour ‘will be guided by public opinion’ on the mayoral requirement.
The Lib Dems’ pledge to introduce STV for all elections will not surprise anyone, but the Tory commitment to extend first past the post to mayoral elections might. The effect would probably be less than some fear – FTPT wouldn’t have changed the result of any of the Metro Mayor elections, nor the four London Mayor elections since 2000.
Local government funding
Again, language tells us a lot, and there are various phrases throughout the Conservative’s ‘Forward, Together’ that suggest a mistrust in local government. Councils, for example, will be ‘forced’ to remove roadside litter; various new ‘duties’ and ‘requirements’ are described, few with additional funding. This contrasts to the Lib Dems who say they would ‘drastically reduce the powers of central government ministers to interfere in local government’ and Labour’s quip that ‘you can’t empower local government if you impoverish it’.
Given the scale of the fall in local government funding since 2010, particularly for the mostly metropolitan areas with devolution deals, the lack of detail in the Tory manifesto is unsurprising (although the media’s relative silence on the issue is). They do promise to ‘give local government greater control over the money they raise’ and address concerns about current funding distributions – could this mean an even greater shift away from metropolitans to county councils?
Both Labour and the Greens offer increased funding to councils, while the Lib Dems open the door to upping council taxes by removing the requirement for referenda on increases.
What does it tell us?
While Labour are keen to claim devolution as their own, this doesn’t quite square with their undeniable proclivity for centralised, statist policy. We can be confident of a revamping of national education and the NHS from a Labour cabinet, but only a review of long term local government financing is promised. As Heather Jameson, Editor of The MJ says, it is ‘not so much devolution as sucking more of the state back up to the centre.’ If politics confounds the pollsters once again, a Corbyn-led Labour government would only make this contradiction more apparent.
For a party that has just unexpectedly won four of the six Metro Mayor races, the Tories’ enthusiasm for devolution is disappointingly muted. Indeed, the Local Government Chronicle’s front cover after the local elections pictured Andy Street as the ‘saviour of devolution’, yet the very next week briefed subscribers on a Tory ‘top-down manifesto that harks back to the past.’
As with all manifestos, May’s has its winners and losers. Street is one of them. Far from getting a ‘reward’ for winning the West Midlands mayoralty, will be disappointed that there is not a single mention of the ‘Midlands Engine’ in the manifesto. Stephanie Flanders, Chair of the RSA Inclusive Growth Commission, will surely be pleased with the Tories’ United Kingdom Shared Prosperity Fund. Built using EU structural funds, it would ‘reduce inequalities’ and help ‘deliver sustainable inclusive growth’. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the Tories are content to tinker with the model; wholesale reform is not on the table.
Although the general polls have tightened, historical precedent and broader indicators suggest there is little chance of there being anything other than one party in power come the 9th June. Their agenda for localism and devolution leaves a lot to be desired.