Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn did not reference devolution in his speech –although he did name check Mayors Andy Burnham, Steve Rotheram and Sadiq Khan – but he did make this statement: “we are going to develop the economic plans in our manifesto to ensure that sustainable growth and good jobs reach ALL parts of the country.” He went onto say that Labour will “establish regional development banks, to invest in an industrial strategy for every region.”
What is notable about this statement is that – not unlike the Osborne ‘devolution solution’ – the key question he is saying Labour will address is an economic one. In other words, the plans are focussed on rebalancing the economy not redressing the democratic deficit which has seen the lifeblood of local government drained, with discretion reduced as funding has been choked off.
However, Jim McMahon in an article released during Conservative Conference – and highly critical of devolution if done as a smokescreen for cuts – links economic and democratic recovery: “Only a Labour government will introduce a radical devolution agenda which sees power handed back to communities, giving councils, residents and business the opportunity to shape the way their services provided.”
He went onto state that “Labour is the party of devolution, and Labour councils have welcomed the breaking down of barriers to ensure power flows from Westminster into regions across Britain.” Interestingly he added that Labour’s approach “will be backed up by regional investment banks, including a Bank of the North, which will complement rather than complicate, existing local government structures.”
This is an exciting suite of proposals and more detail will hopefully emerge. It certainly suggests that Labour will now develop devolution policy and not leave it pending in the same in-tray with wider constitutional reform. It is probably fair to say that Labour nationally has not been the party of devolution since the period 1997 to 2004 (Devo 1.0) when it legislated for devolution to Scotland, Wales and London but its plans for Regional Assemblies were rejected by the people of the north east.
Although it was Labour locally – most notably Manchester – who pushed for years for more powers at the city region level, the Conservatives were able to steal their clothes and championed the introduction of Metro Mayors (Devo 2.0). What is interesting right now is that with Labour starting to seriously think about its approach to devolution, Transport for the North set to become a pan northern statutory body and Yorkshire going back to a regional approach, the debate about Devo 3.0 is about to begin.