With the Cities Devolution Bill going through Parliament in the next few weeks, Labour cannot afford to opt out of the debate.
Uncertain. If I had to pick one word, that’s how I would describe the mood at Labour party conference this year. As delegates dash from fringe meeting to conference hall and back in brilliant Brighton sunshine, there is a real sense that no one is quite sure what their new leader means for either party policy or the party’s electoral prospects.
This doesn’t mean there is a shortage of views on what Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership might mean for the party. Some party members are elated, seeing this as having the potential to start a new era of politics and pointing to a younger, more diverse set of conference attendees than in previous years. Others are despondent, questioning whether Corbyn will be able to forge connections with the voters lost to the Tories at the last election. Still others, such as Liam Byrne and Tristram Hunt, are calling for the party to move on from being either elated or despondent, and to start working on connecting with the voters rather than talking to each other.
Whether you’re firmly in the pro- or anti-Corbyn camp, it’s a conference at which greater debate is being encouraged than has been the case for years – and this looks set to be a theme of the leadership. Trails of Corbyn’s speech later today suggest he will continue to allow shadow Cabinet members to speak freely on issues where they disagree with him. Throughout the conference so far, there has also been a repeated focus on being in ‘listening mode’, both as a holding position – few official policies seem to have been agreed so far – but also to reflect a more populist, democratic brand. There seems to be a deliberate strategy to reassure and give the party room to negotiate in the weeks and months ahead.
The combination of permissiveness to debate policy and lack of knowledge about what party policy might be means fringe meetings are interesting but uncertain affairs, particularly when members of the frontbench and shadow cabinet are involved. At various sessions they’ve tended to either set out a position with which no one at Conference is likely to disagree (e.g. Tories are cutting public funding too much) or just set out their view of what the right policies in particular areas are, rather than a party line – because they don’t yet know it. Where they think there might be an official policy they disagree with, they’ll say so. But no one really knows where all the debate will end up.
On cities, the discussions I’ve seen so far have sought to reclaim devolution, arguing it is a natural Labour position stolen by the Conservatives in a ‘land grab’. There has been much debate about the importance of ensuring devolution is not simply a way of passing down responsibility for cuts. Delegates have also been arguing about what an active state should look like, acting as an entrepreneur and partner with business and local government to support economic growth and social inclusion, contrasting this to the perceived passivity of the Tories. And David Miliband’s concept of ‘double devolution’ has been talked about more than once as delegates talk about the importance of devolution not just to city-regions but also to counties and to neighbourhoods.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for the first party conference after a new leader is elected, a lot of questions are still unanswered for cities. Will the national Labour Party oppose, delay or support the Cities Bill? Is devolution going to be presented as a way of devolving cuts, a route to economic growth and social inclusion, or just an item low down the list of policy priorities? It’s been striking that devolution has been one of the most popular topics for fringe events, and that those supporting devolution and the cities agenda, particularly local Labour politicians and city leaders, are working very hard to ensure it is high on the agenda of the new leadership.
This urgency is warranted. While being in listening mode is important after the election and leadership results, in the rest of the world events are continuing apace. Decisions are needed in the next few weeks, as the Cities Bill goes through Parliament, about Labour’s position. Government is setting the pace and Labour cities are working hard to make the most of the opportunities. The national Labour party cannot afford to opt out of the process or the debate.
I’ll be blogging my reflections about what Labour should be saying and how they should be working with local leaders following the leader’s speech later. But in the meantime, sitting in the dazzling seaside sunshine, the one certainty seems to be that there’s still all to play for when it comes to the devolution policies of the national Labour Party in the run-up to 2020.
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