The Lib Dems and the SNP can put pressure on the main parties to devolve power.
Will Labour rule out working with the SNP? Will the Liberal Democrats hang on sufficiently to hold the balance of power come 8th May? Could the Conservatives secure the support of the DUP for £1 billion of additional spending for Northern Ireland?
Such are the questions dominating this most unusual of period in British politics. As the starting gun is finally fired on the ‘short campaign’ for the 2015 General Election today, the polls continue to indicate that neither Conservatives nor Labour will win enough seats to command a majority in the House of Commons, which means we are faced with the likelihood of a second period of coalition government. The situation is further complicated by the rise in popularity of parties like the Scottish Nationals, the UK Independence Party and the Greens, and the collapse in public support for the Lib Dems, all of which make predicting what kind of coalition could emerge extremely difficult.
Although opinion remains split on whether a second spell of coalition government would be good news for the country, there are a number of ways in which it could be positive for progress on the city devolution agenda.
Although George Osborne has emerged as the unlikely champion of decentralisation over the last twelve months, it’s fair to say that the Liberal Democrats have had the longest standing commitment to localism and constitutional reform of any of the major political parties. Looking back to the outcome of the Coalition negotiations of 2010 highlights the strength of this commitment, with local government reform and the dismantling of central targets over planning, housing and other areas featuring as a centrepiece of the Coalition Agreement, and Nick Clegg opting to champion a broader constitutional reform package as Deputy Prime Minister, personally overseeing moves to reform the House of Lords and the electoral system, rather than heading up a major department.
But the 2010 Agreement also reminds us of the importance of finding common ground with your prospective Coalition partners, and the need to frame such areas as a coherent programme for Government. Five years ago, local government reform represented a key area of mutual interest not only for the Liberal Democrats, but for the Conservatives as well – one that could help reinforce the Coalition’s credentials as a stable, indeed reforming, Government. The fact that the Lib Dems, the Conservatives and Labour are all heading into the General Election promising to do more to push power down from the centre means that should the Lib Dems hold the balance of power again this time around, there is every chance city devolution could form a unifying and galvanizing theme of a 2015 Coalition Agreement.
A key component of the Conservative’s election campaign to date has been the warning that the potential collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland could lead to the somewhat uncomfortable scenario of the SNP holding the balance of power in Westminster. Countless posters and adverts have followed, showing Ed Miliband in embrace, or even in the pocket, of Alex Salmond, and the Tories have been relentless in their pressuring of the Labour leader to rule out working with the SNP in the coming Parliament.
In part, Miliband has acquiesced to this pressure, declaring that there will be no formal coalition with the SNP following the election. But as commentators immediately pointed out, he did not rule out an informal arrangement with the Scottish Nationalists. Should Labour become the largest party in Westminster at the election, but come to rely on SNP votes to pass key legislation, it is likely that they will need to make further concessions on devolution to Scotland during the next Parliament. Already politically difficult to deliver, doing so would likely be impossible without further moves to devolve power within England too, possibly to an “English Parliament”, but far more likely given Labour’s pre-election pledges, to the regions and cities across the country.
If David Cameron fails to win a majority at the coming election, it will be 23 years since the Conservatives last achieved such a feat – just under a quarter of a century. If Ed Miliband fails, it will be a decade since Labour did likewise. Put in the context of their falling party memberships, such a result would confirm that the UK’s two biggest political parties are in crisis. At the heart of this crisis is each party’s inability to build strong support right across the country. Unless we see a dramatic swing in voter intentions during the remainder of the campaign, both the Conservatives and Labour face a situation where they remain virtually unelectable in large swathes of the UK – for the Tories in the urban North and Scotland; for Labour, the South of the country, excluding London.
George Osborne – ever the political strategist – has already grasped the importance of rebuilding the Conservative brand in the urban North, dedicating much of the last 18 months to shaping and promoting his “Northern Powerhouse” agenda, aimed not only at delivering significant and substantial reform for Greater Manchester, but ultimately at beginning the long journey towards rebuilding support for the Tories in that part of the country. His calculation is that although it is unlikely to yield immediate rewards at the forthcoming election, it could do come 2020 or 2025.
Furthermore, by insisting on the creation of a metro mayor in exchange for any significant devolution to the city region level, there is a chance that the Conservatives could succeed in winning power locally in the meantime and in doing so, rebuild and re-energise a political base outside the traditional local government structures. After all, we have had a Conservative Mayor in London for nearly eight years now, despite the fact that capital tends to vote Labour at local and national elections. Similar incentives would also apply to a Labour party incapable of making ground in the South, and a Liberal Democrat party reduced to just a few strongholds in the South West.
Given how tight the polls remain, we could yet be faced with a period of minority government, a very broad “rainbow” coalition of parties, or even a return to the polls before the end of the calendar year. Under each of these scenarios, it is much more likely that significant devolution to UK cities will be put in the “too difficult” box, and progress will stall on ensuring our urban areas have the powers and funding they need to prosper.
With any coalition agreement likely to take far longer to finalise than the five days it took in 2010, it may be some time before we know the true outcome of the 2015 Election, and what it means for the future of our cities.
Director of Communications and Development
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