When Theresa May called a snap general election, it was supposed to call time on one of the most tumultuous periods in our political history. Politics has barely paused to catch breath since 23 June last year, when Britain’s political class was pitched into chaos by the vote to leave the EU. We saw a prime minister resign and a new government formed; and Labour was thrust into its second leadership contest in the space of 12 months. All the while, the value of the pound tumbled and no one was able to project quite what the future held for our country.
Any uncertainty was supposed to have vanished on 9 June, when Theresa May would be swept back into power by popular acclamation. We would wake up to 5 years of “strong and stable” Conservative government, whose agenda would be dominated by striking a hard bargain on Brexit.
The fact that we instead have more surprise and instability is down in large part, of course, to the stunning way Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party outstripped expectations, gaining votes, and crucially seats, across broad swathes of the country.
Labour is now debating exactly what this surprise success means. In such discussions it is probably important to keep in view just how bad the Conservative campaign was and that the next war will be a different one. But it is also clear that Labour did a lot right. Jeremy Corbyn was able to project an authenticity, an ease, a comfort in his own skin; people were able to look and listen and feel the presence of a fully fledged member of the human race. This is important, and stands in stark contrast to the SpAds and wonks of Labour’s recent past, as well as the robotic, say nothing and see no-one caution of the May campaign.
A more nuanced question is around the effect of Labour’s manifesto. Following its well-timed leak, the more people saw of it, the more they seemed to like it. So did we witness nearly 13 million votes for socialism? Or social democracy? Or was its success down to a more generalised sense of clear lines being drawn, a party which stands for something tangible and is able to speak in defence of it with moral clarity?
There is no doubt the manifesto had an impact and Labour must now look to build out from this strong platform. One thing that seems striking about the manifesto is its reliance on the role of the central state to effect change. After Gordon Brown’s defeat in 2010, a consensus quickly emerged that the New Labour governments had become too managerial, too controlling, and any future Labour administration needed to focus more on driving power downwards and giving people greater control over their workplaces, their public services and their communities. These ideas formed a large part of Labour’s policy review led by Jon Cruddas, but their impact on the 2015 manifesto was ultimately piecemeal. This relied heavily on Labour’s traditional tax and spend instincts, with higher levels of taxation funding higher levels of spending on public services.
Labour’s 2017 manifesto essentially doubled down on these instincts, throwing away the shackles of caution and being more explicit about who should pay and that the party would indeed be borrowing to invest in infrastructure spending.
But while the document has much to say about how a larger spending cake will be shared more fairly, it has less to say about power and how it can be shared more widely. Local government barely gets a mention, beyond that it will cease to be cut (a blessed relief, to be sure). Other than stating “Labour is the party of devolution”, there is little sense that devolution is a driving mission, despite the fact that Labour now has high-profile mayors and powerful local government leaders in its big city strongholds. Nor is there any real acknowledgement that to reduce the long term pressure on public services, we are going to have to take care out of NHS institutions and into our communities.
This feels at odds with a growing recognition amongst policymakers that many of the solutions to our most stubborn social challenges lie outside Whitehall’s reach. By giving local areas greater control over a wider range of levers, services can be shaped around the distinct needs of every person and the full range of local assets can be harnessed to achieve social change. Locality recently published a paper which outlines how to “Keep it Local” and empower the community and voluntary sector organisations who are already picking up the slack from austerity. It introduces a series of case studies of social policy experiments that have been successful across Europe, as part of Locality’s work with the InnoSI research programme.
It’s not the case that Labour is no longer interested in decentralisation. John McDonnell spoke at Locality’s Convention last November and strongly supported our call for a bold programme investment into community ownership of local assets. And the manifesto contains lots of interesting ideas about creating local banks, supporting energy co-ops, and giving communities more power to shape their town centres. However, it ultimately underplays the leading role that community organisations and local people should play in finding their own solutions to their own problems. Labour’s policy debate has been stifled over the past two years and focused on warring factions pulling in different directions. The party now needs to use its newfound positivity to think not just about how it takes power, but what it does with it.