The right recovery from coronavirus will require more devolution, so let’s do it – Labour Article
Despite still being deeply mired in the current crisis, the argument around reopening schools has shown that leaving lockdown may be even more demanding than entering it. The process will be fraught and full of challenges. However, we should also recognise that it presents a unique opportunity to do things differently. The best place to start? Devolution.
For too long, British politics has been centred around Westminster. Other regions have suffered as a result. Under Tony Blair, some piecemeal powers were delegated to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (as well as London). But, as recent research makes clear, Britain remains the most politically centralised country of its size in the developed world.
It is also the most regionally divided. Discussions about the imbalance between the North and the South are not novel, which was recognised when the Con-Lib Coalition came to office. The consequent agreement for multiple metro mayors was set in motion to start to sort out this state of affairs.
Debates around the difference between towns and cities are not new either, although they have recently been revitalised following the Brexit referendum. But the divide runs deeper than overly simplistic characterisations of the liberal elite and the left-behinds. Even in London, which has benefited from the current situation, inequality is out of control.
Time and again, local people have been let down. Overly centralised decision-making has suffocated community control and starved places of investment opportunities and economic resources.
A reckoning is long overdue to right these wrongs. Both main parties recognise the problem. During the Labour leadership election, Keir Starmer called for a federal solution. Boris stopped short of such claims, but he did boast about “levelling up” Britain’s regions. His rise through the ranks as Mayor of London means he knows very well the leverage local politics can provide.
It is perhaps no surprise that both leaders have their eye on boosting the powers of local governments. Labour has historically had its voter bases away from London, although their more recent gains in urban areas are now reflected in metro mayors like Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham.
For their part, the Tory electoral landslide last year was built on the backs of the working class who ‘lent’ their pro-Brexit vote to the Blues. Boris knows this and was keen to capitalise on it before coronavirus bulldozed through his big plans.
So there is a clear bipartisan base for devolution. Returning to the row around schools reopening, however, it is clear that giving power back to the people is about more than just political expediency. Local teachers obviously know what is best for local problems. Simple one-size-fits-all advice from central government clearly doesn’t cut it. This example applies to more than just education.
The bad news is that as we move past the pandemic, local governments will be on their knees. Facing huge financial shortfalls, significant job losses and a continuing strain on health and social care, many are already on the brink of bankruptcy.
We cannot repeat the mistakes of the last financial crisis. Austerity cut money from communities and councils to keep costs down. Coming out of the current crisis, we must instead give them unequivocal financial support.
Investment alone will not be enough, however. Giving regions the powers to raise some of their own taxes would empower them to be proactive and address the issues that are relevant to them, instead of making them even more reliant on the Treasury.
These financial powers must be matched with political changes that are more than just symbolic and superficial. By delegating diverse competencies, democratically elected councils and mayors could introduce measures that deal with each region’s distinct issues. Rent caps in urban agglomerations, raising productivity in post-industrial areas or transforming transport infrastructure in places where financial support has been sorely lacking.
Our post-pandemic society will need every advantage, not to take us back to a broken idea of ‘normal’, but to really propel us to make the required economic renewal and start an environmental recovery. By giving power back to the people, devolution is our best shot at making that a reality.
Written by Chief Labour Writer, Evan Saunders
Point of Information
Right idea, wrong approach? – a Liberal response
Evan writes eloquently on the need for devolution, and as a fundamental concept, I couldn’t agree more. Centralised decision-making coupled with the painful wholesale defunding of local authorities has brought local government and community decision-making to its knees. After the division and pain wrought by Brexit and Covid-19, uniting the British people at a community level is more important than ever.
However, I would urge caution. For devolution to succeed there must be a demand for it, it cannot be imposed on the people. The so-called working-class voters he speaks about in ‘left behind’ areas have been neglected by the Labour Party for decades, to the point where many abandoned their socialist roots to vote Conservative in 2019.
These voters must feel listened to, and if devolution is to occur, they have to be consulted. But how? A proposed ‘constitutional convention’ is one idea pursued by Keir Starmer that could have real mileage.
But above all, politicians must be careful not to repeat past mistakes. The 2004 Referendum comes to mind when 78% of voters in the North East decisively voted against the Labour’s Government’s proposals on further devolution. To empower communities successfully, devolution must be a bottom-up process.
Recent political turmoil shows that people in these communities are very clearly sick and tired of being ignored. Local people must help design new structures and be consulted on proposed new powers, rather than being handed down piecemeal autonomy from Westminster and be expected to feel thankful for it.
Devolution could well be the solution this country needs to recover from years of strife. However, it must be done in the right way.
Written by Liberal Writer, Jeeves Sidhu
Westminster isn’t a barrier to success – a Conservative response
Mr Saunders is quite right in stating that devolution fosters a sense of togetherness in the devolved regions of the UK. It is this togetherness and community spirit that will prove essential in helping Britain regain a sense of ‘normal’ following the current crisis.
However, I disagree with his notion that these regions suffer due to centralisation. Touching on his arguments surrounding the reopening of schools; the governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have laid out individual plans for getting children back into school.
The ‘advice’ from central government is nothing more than this, an advisory structure produced by Westminster. The devolved assemblies’ unique frameworks on the issue show there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution being enforced.
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen the devolved powers take decisions into their own hands. Nicola Sturgeon openly criticised the PM’s “stay alert” message as catastrophic and dismissed Westminster’s easing of restrictions – as did Wales and Northern Ireland.
In 2014, the Scottish people voted to remain a part of the UK. As a result, David Cameron promised greater powers to the Scottish Parliament. This became the Scotland Act 2016 and includes further responsibilities such as taxation, welfare spending and elections.
In Northern Ireland, it was the central power of Westminster that brought about the restoration of Stormont, nearly 3 years after its collapse. Had the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, not threatened to call an election if the DUP and Sinn Fein failed to compromise back in January – the government is unlikely to have been restored. Thus leaving the people of Northern Ireland without leadership during a time of national emergency.
Whilst we are through the worst of the crisis, we remain very much on a knife’s edge – any drastic changes could be catastrophic. Now is not the time to rewrite the British constitution by changing devolution laws. Instead, the four regions of the UK must use Westminster as a symbol of unity and a tool for their recovery.
Written by Conservative Writer, Emer Kelly