Labour, England and the northern powerhouse

Richard Hayton

This essay was originally published on 29 April 2016.

What sort of Labour can win England? In this post, I address that question in relation to one key area of policy, namely devolution and decentralisation. This issue has risen to prominence once again in the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum, which has brought into relief the need for reformed governing arrangements for England, and as a consequence of the Conservatives’ proclaimed desire to build a ‘northern powerhouse’ to promote economic development. Labour is right to subject the northern powerhouse agenda to critical scrutiny, but it should not be dismissed out of hand. The party should seek to offer policies which build on the principles of decentralisation embedded in the northern powerhouse framework, but seeks to democratise them and make them more relevant and connected to local people. This policy agenda should also be framed within an explicitly English discourse, dissolving the false dichotomy between English patriotism and regionalism.

In a recent essay, Michael Kenny has cautioned that “there is a risk that current assertions of the uniqueness, and progressive potential, of northern identity tacitly accept the dominant notion that its identities, manners and cultures place it outside the English nation”. The suggestion that ‘the north’ and northern identity is somehow separate from, or even alien too, England and Englishness is a sentiment that has manifested itself on both the left and the right. Familiar conservative representations of Englishness, summoning up romanticised visions of a green and pleasant land, are certainly rooted in a southern view of Englishness that often finds contrast with the dark satanic mills (and moors) of the north. On the left meanwhile, much of the scepticism about the possibility of a progressive patriotism in England has been underpinned by the view that Englishness is an irredeemably conservative nationalism, and one based on the centralising and (for some) anti-democratic Westminster state apparatus of Anglo-Britain. From this vantage point, the core of England is London and the home counties, with the north relegated, along with the other nations of the United Kingdom, to the status of a provincial fringe.

This latter characterisation, drawing on the work of Tom Nairn in particular, has a powerful resonance in Labour circles, reflecting as it does broader concerns about the extent of economic inequalities between the north and the south, as well as anxieties about the democratic accountability of the UK state. Whether the way to address these concerns is through a regionalist agenda is not a question the party has ever fully resolved. While New Labour pushed ahead with devolution to Scotland and Wales, in England the prospects for elected regional assemblies foundered following the heavy referendum defeat of the proposals for an elected assembly in the north east. Outside of London, which had opted for an elected assembly and mayor, regional policy consequently revolved around the regional development agencies (RDAs) setup in 1998. As such, England’s regional governance apparatus focused primarily on issues of planning and economic development, a trend continued with the northern powerhouse, rather than on democratic accountability or identity politics.

A key roadblock to the development of an effective and democratic tier of regional government in England has been the long-standing view that regionalism is incompatible with, perhaps even alien to, the English way of doing things. In different ways this sentiment has manifested itself on both the left and the right. For Conservatives, any suggestion of regional government at best entails the imposition of unwanted additional tiers of inefficient bureaucracy, and at worst – for the most paranoid – implies a federalist plot to break up England and/or the UK and subsume it within a ‘Europe of the regions’. Even following their somewhat grudging acceptance of devolution to Scotland and Wales, the Conservatives firmly resisted any suggestion that power should be significantly decentralised in England too. The language used is also instructive, for example the 2001 Conservative manifesto argued that ‘almost no-one identifies with the arbitrary regions into which the country has been carved up’ and pledged to scrap the regional development agencies (RDAs) created by the Labour government in 1998. When they returned to office in 2010, the Conservatives consequently rushed to sweep away the limited regional governance structures that had developed under Labour, abolishing RDAs, the regional spatial strategies, and the regional assemblies/regional leaders’ boards which had previously received some government funding and support.

On the left meanwhile, many saw regionalism as an answer to (or perhaps more accurately a way of avoiding) the English question, or more specifically the West Lothian question. But with no one seriously suggesting creating a series of parliaments across England with primary legislative powers to match those of Holyrood, it is of course no such thing. The creation of an English parliament legislating for the nation’s 53 million inhabitants, would not preclude the possibility of some form of elected governance structures, whether that be regional assemblies or elected mayors leading combined authorities, sitting above the level of local councils. Strangely this either/or thinking continues to intrude into debates about the English question on the left. For example, in his recent lecture advocating a referendum on England’s constitutional future, Tristram Hunt noted that while his ‘instinct is for a proper English parliament… some prefer regional assemblies’. Really the two issues are separate, and should be treated as such. An English parliament with powers matching those of Holyrood would offer a direct, and superficially neat, answer to the West Lothian question, although it would bring with it all the attendant and well-document problems of having such an outsized sub-state body. It would also do nothing to address the issue of the centralisation of power in the Anglo-British political system, and most likely located in London (quite possibly at Westminster) would hardly serve to reinvigorate or empower the England that lies beyond the home counties.

As Tristram Hunt also noted, with the recent procedural changes on English-only matters the House of Commons is, in effect, transforming itself on a part-time basis into an English parliament. Labour has dragged its feet on the issue of English votes for English laws for too long, missing the opportunity to reach cross-party agreement on the modest McKay Commission proposals advanced in March 2013. As a further raft of powers are devolved to Edinburgh, the principle of fairness dictates that some form of English-only consent is sought for equivalent matters in England. Labour would do well to accept that principle and move on.

The wider debate can then be had about what institutional governance structures can best serve England in the 21st century. This should be unambiguously presented as an English matter, and discussed as such – preferably through a constitutional convention for England. Labour can be proud of its record of devolution and decentralisation in other parts of the UK, and should apply these principles in England too. For all the flaws in its current form, the northern powerhouse agenda provides the opportunity to create a new political consensus around the need for a radical shift of power away from Westminster, to more local and regional levels. It also marks a recognition of the need to fundamentally rebalance the economy and provide a counterweight to the dominance of London, a principle Labour can embrace and widely proclaim to voters across the whole of England, and one which can subject the Conservatives to searing critique. Faced with overpriced housing and overcrowded public transport, that is surely a view few Labour voters in the capital would disagree with, and would resonate as much in the West Midlands as in the West Country or West Yorkshire.

A recent BBC/ComRes opinion poll found that 82 per cent of northerners agree that local politicians in the north, rather than MPs in Westminster, should have control over services like transport and health to improve the region. But as Simon Lee has argued, in its current form ‘Osborne’s ‘devolution revolution’ has meant the devolution of responsibility to current local civic and future mayoral leaders for shrinking the size of the state in northern England’. However, it is not by rejecting the principle of decentralisation that Labour can effectively challenge this, but by seeking to democratise it. The austerity agenda derives in no small part from the dominance of the Treasury, so Labour should be engaging in a conversation about what roles, responsibilities and taxes can be transferred to local and regional levels, breaking the Treasury stranglehold. An English Labour party should, and could, speak directly to these issues by asking quite simply ‘what is best for the people of England?’ And what could be more patriotic than that?

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The England and Labour project is being coordinated by Prof John Denham, Director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, with an editorial group of Prof Mike Kenny (Director of the Mile End Institute, QMUL), Mary Riddell and Jonathan Rutherford. The Fabian Review will be publishing regular articles from the series, as part of the debate about Labour’s response to contemporary England.