Last week saw the release of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos. Since then Labour have gained two points in the polls, putting them at 32% to the Tories’ 43%, and the Lib Dems have seen their vote share continue to decline. Despite the YouGov MRP analysis showing a 68-seat majority for the Conservatives, the gap between the two main parties is closing. With just 2 weeks until the General Election it is all still to play for.
By comparison to the 2017 election, none of the three main parties have endeavoured to demonstrate their localist credentials. Instead they’ve focused on Brexit and public services. Labour’s manifesto committed to ‘a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly’ in an attempt to ‘answer crucial questions on how power is distributed in the UK today’. This a repeat of its policy from 2017 and, disappointingly, shows no further policy has been developed in the 30 months since the last General Election.
The Liberal Democrats have the most thorough and comprehensive plan for a ‘devolution revolution’, with plans to devolve revenue-raising powers away from Westminster and a capital £50bn Regional Rebalancing Programme. But this election hasn’t seen the resurgence many Lib Dems were hoping for, and with Labour looking likely to lose seats across the country their chances of holding the balance of power are slim.
The Conservative Party manifesto has a devolution shaped hole in it. While the Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other senior members of the Conservative Government have expressed a keen interest in devolving powers, there are only broad brushes in the manifesto. They have merely reiterated the proposal for ‘full devolution’, whatever that might look like, and ‘moving power from Whitehall to people and places across the UK’. The commitment to publish an English Devolution White Paper next year seems the most significant devo element.
There is some detail. Under their plans, city regions would get funding to upgrade their public transport and the Government will invite proposals from local areas for growth bodies similar to the Northern Powerhouse to be set up across the country.
Politicians, slowly but surely, are realising that devolved power could rebalance an increasingly divided country. Dissatisfaction with Westminster-centric politics and the growth of regional disparities arguably fuelled the vote to leave the EU, and without massive movement of policy-making power to the cities and regions the problem of political disenfranchisement won’t improve.
According to IPPR North’s ‘State of the North’ report, the UK is more regionally unequal than any comparable advanced economy. With that in mind, the Tories may have to deliver more local control over the next five years to retain former Labour voters going Tory on December 12th.
The Conservative’s manifesto – forward thinking in some respects – has been described as “remarkable for its lack of policy proposals”. Many in the country clearly think that Johnson’s promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’ will be a catalyst for a major redistribution of political power. But can he deliver this? Whatever happens in the coming months, the UK’s severe regional divide – exacerbated by an overly centralised form of governance – must be addressed. Devolution, as the saying goes, is the solution. But do the Tories have the will to deliver?