This year’s Labour Party conference will be largely remembered primarily for the leadership’s successful bid to empower its membership – through the successful ‘McDonnell amendment’ (which means future leadership contestants can be nominated with the support of just 10 per cent of party MPs), and through the decision to give members a bigger platform in the conference itself.
It is ironic, however, that in these efforts to give a greater voice to grass-roots members and people outside the ‘Westminster bubble’, the party has side-lined its two most visible and important representatives outside London: Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, the metro mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool city region respectively. Indeed, Sadiq Khan, who as Mayor of London is the most powerful labour politician in England and has the biggest personal mandate in British politics, was only granted an opportunity to address the conference last-minute, having campaigned for a slot for weeks.
This seems particularly odd given the rhetoric from the Labour leadership and shadow cabinet this conference season about its plans for devolution. For example, Jeremy Corbyn used a fringe event to reiterate his vision of spreading ‘municipal socialism’ across Britain, and vowed to end what he described as the Government’s ‘piecemeal devolution’ by empowering local government. This echoed comments by Andrew Gwynne, Shadow Secretary for Communities and Local Government, who promised that in power Labour would oversee a ‘local government renaissance’, rowing back austerity and devolving more powers to places than the current Government.
In truth however, this year’s conference – and the decision to snub the mayors in particular – highlighted the ambivalence of the Labour leadership when it comes to devolution, and the growing sense of a divide between the national party and local leadership. For a start, beyond the rhetoric about going further than the Conservatives in handing down powers from the top, there was nothing at this year’s conference to suggest that the party has an ambitious plan or well-developed polices on how it would do that. Indeed, at the Centre for Cities fringe event on the future of urban leadership, Steve Rotheram admitted that the party’s policy on devolution is unclear, while Andy Burnham described it as “half-hearted”.
Moreover, all the key polices set out by Labour in this conference season, and in its general election manifesto earlier this year – reflect a top-down centralised approach to policy-making – from the proposal to abolish PFI contrasts, to plans to nationalise the railways and introduce national education and care services. Rather than offering a vision of empowering a local government renaissance, these policies suggest that a Corbyn government would primarily view local government as a platform to deliver its big national policy priorities.
This would be a mistake. While the national leadership has been emboldened by its showing in the last general election, it nonetheless has significant ground to make up if it is to have a chance of taking power at the national level. Indeed, while in the last election Labour consolidated its support in big cities across the North and Midlands, it also lost ground in some of its traditional strongholds – conceding the Stoke South seat to the Conservatives (having held it for 80 years), and also losing former safe seats of Mansfield and Middlesbrough South.
As such, Labour cannot afford to be complacent about its support across the North and Midlands. One obvious way to shore up that support – and to win back votes in these places – is to shout loudly about what the party can do for people and places when it has power, which is why Labour should be making the most of its mayors and local government leaders. Indeed, in cities across the UK (and towns, counties and districts), Labour is already in government. Collectively, Labour mayors and councillors represent around 31m people across England and Wales.
The metro mayors are the most visible manifestation of this, and less than five months into office are already having a big impact on the national and local political stage. This has been most evident in the campaign for more investment in Northern transport links spearheaded by Burnham and Rotheram in recent months. Without the intervention of the mayors, it’s hard to imagine this issue – which seems unlikely to fade anytime soon – having gained such national prominence.
Furthermore, if Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has in part been characterised by his promise of offering a “new way of doing politics”, this is exactly what the metro mayors offer – bringing decision-making away from Whitehall and much closer to the communities they represent. Similarly, if the vote for Brexit was characterised by the desire to ‘take back control’ from Brussels, the mayors are enabling people in places like Greater Manchester to take back control over issues such as housing, transport and education. The Labour leadership should support this by countering the traditional ‘Whitehall knows best’ attitude which dominates British politics, and which represents a formidable obstacle to the mayors having an impact in their city regions. However, replacing one centralising government with another, even if it was a Labour government, would do nothing to readdress this problem.
In the coming years, we can expect the profile of the mayoralities to grow, and the impact they are having in their city regions to become more visible. Labour’s national leadership is missing a trick by failing to get squarely behind them.