Manifesto for Devolution?
DevoConnect’s Director, Steve Barwick, is underwhelmed by the devo content of the Labour manifesto
The third General Election in four years was never going to be about devolution. Brexit and the NHS were always going to be the top two issues. And Labour have a whole host of other priorities from education to utilities, poverty to inequality. But given the ‘taking back control’ mantra in the 2016 EU Referendum and the emergence of eight city region Mayors since that date, four paragraphs from Labour is rather underwhelming!
The major plank of Labour’s policy is a plan for ‘a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly’. This will ‘answer crucial questions on how power is distributed in the UK today, how nations and regions can best relate to each other and how a Labour government can best put power in the hands of the people.’ Labour asserts ‘only a Labour government will safeguard the future of a devolved UK, reforming the way in which it works to make it fit for the future.’
This represents a repeat of its policy in 2017 and, disappointingly, shows that there has been no policy development in the 30 months since the last General Election. It is also a mistake, likely to lead to further delay, to mix up English devolution – which is unfinished business for millions because the Conservatives have insisted on a piecemeal, half-hearted, top down and inflexible approach – with policy towards Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, important though that is.
Labour does at least acknowledge that ‘Britain is one of the most centralised countries in Europe’ and says it ‘will decentralise decision-making and strengthen local democracy.’ It also reiterates Labour’s ‘commitment to One Yorkshire’ which is not surprising – and welcome – given it is supported by most, but still not all, Labour local authorities in Yorkshire. It also intends to ‘make directly elected mayors more accountable to local councillors and elected representatives’ which is somewhat surprising – and probably less welcome – given there isn’t a lot of evidence, or even media noise, that they are left out in the cold by elected Mayors.
Its final proposal is that Labour ‘will re-establish regional Government Offices to make central government more attuned to our English regions, to support our regional investments, and to enable the shift of political power away from Westminster.’ This is perhaps the most surprising policy suggestion given that powerful Government Offices, as the name suggests accountable to Whitehall preserves – arguably reinforces – central control which is the opposite of the current direction of travel towards devolution, greater accountability and more democratic accountability.
Labour’s manifesto – genuinely transformative in many other respects – has been immediately criticised by some as ‘statist’. This is an oversimplification which ignores the fact that beneath the policy headlines there are ongoing and genuine debates about the proper role of devolution – at city region, regional and pan regional levels including regards transport, education and health – as well as a genuine commitment to community wealth building and local government.
The fact that this confusion at the heart of Labour’s devolution policy – pro democracy and pro the state – has not been further resolved over the last four years is disconcerting. If they form a Government on December 13th – and that remains a distinct possibility – Labour’s new Secretary of State will need to think quickly and act wisely because their manifesto will only be of limited use.