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So what did Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech mean? That’s the question that commentators, policymakers, businesses and decision-makers around the country have been asking over the past few days as they’ve pored over the details. For cities, while there were relevant commitments to more bottom-up policymaking, investment in public infrastructure and housebuilding, the speech raised serious questions about where the national Labour Party goes next on cities policy – if anywhere. So what are the questions raised by Corbyn’s speech and how should they be answered?
First, will cities and city-regions policy be part of the national Labour party’s main agenda? Throughout conference, I heard many delegates bemoan that the Conservatives had ‘stolen’ the cities agenda that was rightfully Labour’s by announcing the Northern Powerhouse. Yet cities and devolution did not feature in Corbyn’s speech at all. Instead, it focused on his belief in both a bigger and more active national state and grassroots, community-led activism. Cities and city-regions are the ‘missing middle’.
Most worryingly, Corbyn does not seem to regard the prism of place as important; instead focusing primarily on class and individual characteristics. Take, for example, his comment on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that, “if you’re poor in Glasgow, and you’re poor in Birmingham, what’s the difference? If you need a house in London, and a house in Glasgow, what’s the difference?”. All of our work shows that the reasons why London and Glasgow lack housing, and the solutions to those problems, are quite different, requiring policy to be tailored accordingly rather than being one-size-fits-all.
A Labour party that leads many of the UK’s cities (which drive economic growth and contain some of the highest levels of deprivation) needs to put cities at the heart of its discussions about economic growth, public service reform and democratic renewal. Taking a national, one-size-fits-all approach to policies would be a huge backward step for the national Labour policy – and particularly risky for an Islington MP already being accused by some northern MPs of being too London-centric.
Second, how will Labour balance its desire to democratise policymaking with an ability to take urgent big decisions? Corbyn emphasised his wish to democratise policymaking and embrace different views, within his shadow Cabinet and beyond. While acknowledging that this would be challenging and time-consuming, he argued it was an integral part of “a new politics”. This is true (although debates about his views on Trident raise questions about whether he will be willing to subsume his principles to the majority view of the party on major issues). But what does that mean for urgent decisions?
On cities policy, the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill is due for its second reading in two weeks, while rumours are flying about potential announcements of devolution deals as early as tomorrow. Despite local Labour leaders being the ones leading the negotiations, the national Labour party is nowhere in this debate and losing ground fast. They need to come to a clear position within the next month, yet MPs I spoke to remained unsure as to what that would be. There is a real risk that lack of a counter-offer on cities will lead the national Labour Party to revert to equating devolution of powers to devolution of cuts, opposing the Cities Bill and urging local Labour politicians not to deal with the devil.
The national Labour Party needs to rapidly agree its position, supporting the Cities Bill that so many local Labour leaders have influenced and encouraging the Government to improve the devolution deals that individual cities will be agreeing over the weeks ahead. In an ideal world that would mean encouraging the Government to move towards fiscal devolution, as advocated by Clive Betts and the CLG Select Committee, although little about the debate at Labour conference suggests that is likely.
Third, how does Labour balance preparing for national opposition and supporting local Labour leaders to govern? Throughout the conference, Corbyn and colleagues have agreed on the need to be a more effective opposition through inspiring the grassroots to join a genuine social movement, with resistance to austerity a key platform. Yet local Labour leaders are in power now, with a mandate from local citizens rather than Labour Party members, and with the opportunity to change people’s lives and opportunities now.
While in the 1980s many local Labour leaders governed on a platform of opposition, today’s leaders wish to gain more powers and funding to govern more effectively. While they are by no means in agreement with all the Government’s policies, including austerity, they have to be able to do business with ministers. Many of the highest profile city leaders who have been at the forefront of changing the relationship between the national state and cities were not in Brighton to influence the Labour debate, but in Whitehall negotiating with George Osborne and Greg Clark for a better devolution deal for their city and their citizens. It is vital in the weeks and months ahead that the national party works with local leaders, listens to them and supports them to get the best deal they can.
Before the Election, the national Labour party was engaged in a ‘race to the top’ on cities policy with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – a race it lost because of its reticence on the Northern Powerhouse. The danger now is that by failing to agree a policy on cities quickly, the Labour party will revert to default opposition, undermine the efforts of local Labour leaders to get better deals for their cities, and end up falling out of the ‘race’ on cities policy altogether. If Jeremy Corbyn is to create an economy for the many rather than the few, it’s a mistake he cannot afford to make.
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