With the result now in, how will the new Labour leadership approach urban policy in this parliament and beyond?
So now it’s confirmed. Having squeezed onto the ballot paper at the 11th hour and then run an insurgent campaign from the left that unexpectedly electrified the campaign, Jeremy Corbyn has won the Labour leadership. The result has sent shockwaves throughout the Labour party and right across the political establishment; shockwaves that will reverberate for some time as Jeremy Corbyn starts to put into practice the changes he has promised.
“Corbynmania” has surprised even Corbyn himself as it has gathered momentum in recent months. The North London MP has been transfixing audiences across the country with his promises to deliver a radical change from the status quo – a more inclusive and grassroots based politics, a bold economic agenda that rejects what he has referred to as the “political project” of austerity, and a party that stands for a substantial expansion of the state, both in terms of the services it provides, and the investment that it makes.
Each of these pledges will have substantial implications for the ongoing national political debate about urban policy and city devolution. Although it is too soon to know for sure how a Corbyn-led Labour party will approach these areas, based on his statements during the campaign here are five changes that we may see over the coming months.
1. Labour’s national opposition to the Northern Powerhouse and city-region mayors will harden. There is no doubt that since 2014 Labour has been left flat-footed by Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, not sure whether to support an initiative supported by many local Labour MPs or oppose it. That now looks set to change. During the campaign, Corbyn described the Chancellor’s Northern Powerhouse initiative as a “cruel deception”, involving only the devolution of “crude cuts” to local areas. As set out in Northern Future, Corbyn railed against the “imposition” of city-region mayors without local referenda, calling instead for an inclusive constitutional convention that could arrive at alternative solutions.
2. The Labour Party will seek to fundamentally amend or defeat the Cities Bill. Given Corbyn and others’ scepticism that Osborne’s devolution agenda is anything more than a fig leaf for increasingly severe cuts to public spending, it’s likely that the Labour Party leadership will seek to fundamentally amend or defeat the Cities and Devolution Bill – required to deliver on the Greater Manchester devolution deal as well as any others – when it comes back to the House of Commons. Such a move would risk resistance and rebellion from local Labour politicians whose areas stand to benefit from the Government’s agenda. If the Cities Bill was derailed, it would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to deliver the substantial devolution deals now being discussed with UK cities within the current Parliament.
3. There will be greater emphasis on increasing national public investment in housing and infrastructure. Labour went into the 2015 General Election caught between the rock of privately advocating more public investment and the hard place of feeling the need to demonstrate their fiscal credibility through reducing public spending. A Corbyn-led Labour party will not feel the weight of such a dilemma.The new leader has been clear that he believes austerity to be a “political project”, not an “economic necessity”. He has outlined a series of plans to significantly increase public investment in infrastructure, housing, hospitals and schools – an approach that has been dubbed “people’s quantitative easing”. If Corbyn can successfully persuade mainstream public opinion of his position then he will increase the pressure on Government to invest more in infrastructure at both national and local level.
4. In a context of more national investment in infrastructure, Labour will emphasise the important of regional investment institutions and more ‘bottom-up’ devolution to cities, towns and rural areas. Corbyn’s Northern Future paper hints at a different framework for devolution. He argues that alongside more national investment, there should be “new investment institutions” located in the economies they are trying to support, for example, “rooted in the Northern economy to ensure deep rooted regeneration”. While supporting the principle of devolution and “providing the investment and freedom to innovate and prioritise” for the North, Corbyn argues against piecemeal devolution and advocates a more holistic approach whereby everybody – cities, towns and rural areas – gets something. This is likely to alter the kind of devolution the Labour Party advocates as past history suggests that significant devolution along the lines of the Greater Manchester Deal cannot be delivered everywhere at once.
5. Corbyn will look to re-appropriate Osborne’s “march of the makers” rhetoric and argue for reindustrialisation. Corbyn argued during the campaign that coal mines should be reopened in the North and Wales and that the UK as a whole needed to rebuild its industrial base, ideally in the North of England. To do this, Corbyn has argued for concerted investment from government to support industry with “government contracts, guarantees and support.” Less has been said so far about whether this is regarded as the most effective way to generate new jobs, or about Corbyn’s views on policy to support jobs growth in fast-growing knowledge-intensive and service organisations.
Throughout the summer, there has been no shortage of doomsday warnings about what a victory for the North London MP would mean for the future of Labour and the country. Whether these fears are ultimately realised or not remains to be seen. But there are genuine questions about how a Corbyn-led Labour party is likely to approach city devolution and what that could mean for urban policy now, this coming Parliament and beyond. While the dust settles, cities can only benefit from making the most of what’s on the table now, while keeping a weather eye out for potential storms on the devolution horizon as Corbyn settles into his new role.
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