True north

Nick Forbes

There’s a popular belief that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of the symbols for both danger and opportunity. The Labour party has a similar relationship with the word devolution, though sadly we don’t seem to be focusing on the opportunity, just the threat.

Right now, the Labour party is losing the battle of ownership over the devolution agenda. We are so focused on seeing it as a Tory trap, a way to devolve responsibility without funding, that we are at risk of positioning ourselves as the opponents.

Yes, Tory devolution is a trap, but it is a trap based on more than just budget cuts. I have no doubt that George Osborne’s first aim when dreaming up the ‘northern powerhouse’ was not to empower us but to silence us. A politician as tactical as Mr Osborne does not suddenly wake up one morning and decide he wants to end decades of Tory neglect and start caring about the north. The trap was always, I suspect, to offer the north devolution on the expectation we would turn it down. This would have allowed the government to spend the next four years blaming leaders here every time we point to the impact of another heartless Tory cut.

We have avoided that by accepting the devolution on offer. We have done this in the realisation that it is now the only game in town, that there is nothing to be gained from turning this down and we might as well just grit our teeth and accept it.

But this approach is not enough, not nearly for a party which was born out of the battle to take power from the hands of the privileged and into our streets and workplaces. Labour and the trade unions were created to bring power to communities; we were fighting to give the people a say when the Tories were still deciding if all men, let alone women, should have the vote. We therefore cannot now be the party whose role in the devolution debate is simply limited to saying “don’t trust the Tories,” no matter how true that is.

What we need, instead, is a sense of ownership.  As Jon Trickett, Labour’s shadow communities secretary, said, “the government’s cities and local government devolution bill builds on Labour achievements and is a welcome step forward”. And he is right to say that building on the bill, setting out the next steps, has to be where Labour reclaims the message. Rather than standing on the sidelines, we need to make the future of devolution one in which the voters see a credible Labour vision for local control.

In the north east we have taken some steps towards that. We have made devolution part of our fight for social justice. We know there is no social justice without more and better jobs and we have placed people and employment growth at the centre of our demands. Too often, devolution is pictured in terms of businesses or buildings. Devolution, either the limited offer now available or the empowering version we seek to build, will fail if it does not have social justice at its heart.

Look at the current work programme. It hasn’t had the best of successes nationally. It is a blunt instrument, capable of leaving families behind and one which can measure its success without worrying about its regional record. Put simply, it has failed those furthest away from the labour market. That is because it is run from Whitehall. We cannot afford for future employment programmes to face the same failings. But more importantly, Labour cannot turn down the chance to grasp control of this policy from a Conservative party which frankly does not care about the results.

It is the same story when we look at skills and young people. In the north east we want the responsibility to set out how we will train the region’s workforce to match the region’s needs. We, the party of the workers, should be setting out how we will ensure skills training is at the heart of devolution. We already see great efforts here by our trade unions, who work tirelessly to retrain and redeploy their members and bring about job security in the process. With control of skills funding we can add to that work.

And in the wider sphere of public service reform, we see that too often people get left behind when Whitehall’s departmental approach struggles to deal with people with cross cutting needs. We need to bring services closer together, and the decision about how we do that should be taken in the regions, so we meet the needs of the individual not some distant government target. Dealing with people in relation to what government department they fit into is no longer a model that works as austerity cuts deep.

We have done this with the tools on offer, but could achieve so much more. So, as a party, we have to ask ourselves: when the voter hears our offer, does their heart sing or sink? Are we ambitious enough, are we positive enough for people to back us? I believe Labour understands better than any party the potential for devolution. The task now is to put our vision to the voters.

That means making clear what devo-max for England will mean, how a federal system would work in practice. Crucially, we need to make clear we will trust local voters with a bigger say over how their money is spent. The Conservatives have stopped short of true fiscal devolution. There has been a promise from the chancellor of local retention of business rates that could actually make the situation worse, coming as it does with so many caveats and so little protection for those authorities without an Oxford Street or a Bluewater shopping centre. [EW1]

In America, if voters in a city want a new law bringing in they can hold a ballot and have their say on an individual issue. In England if we want to ban chuggers from the high street we have to ask the secretary of state for a bylaw and be told no. Labour must be the party that sets out why the issues that impact on you locally can be dealt with you locally, not with a Whitehall begging bowl.

When we look at the Tory devolution message there are clearly gaps, but it gives us something to build on. The Conservatives have failed to sell the idea of the northern powerhouse, but Labour cannot just point and criticise. Devolution, and for me devolution in the north, is our heartland, both emotionally and geographically. I know there are many in the Labour party who want to seize this agenda back and make it ours again and convince the voters that we can go further and faster, and crucially, that we are about visible change.

We need to commit to devolution for every city, town and county rather than this trickle down devolution the chancellor favours. We need to commit to devolving enough powers that when the next Teesside steel shock comes, for example, local leaders can do more than bang on the door of an uncaring government.

And we need to convince voters that only Labour is the root to a long overdue return to locally held power that matters to them. Only Labour can deliver power to the people.

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