After a summer of discontent and a protracted leadership contest there was a clear appetite among Labour conference delegates this week for the party to redefine itself and set out its stall for the next general election.
Amid debates about renewing the party’s position on issues such as austerity, immigration, patriotism and Brexit, one of the themes that came up repeatedly at fringe events was how Labour could to start to rebuild trust and support across the country by setting out a radical programme for devolution.
Labour, after all, has a strong record in this area: the creation of devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is still regarded as among the biggest successes of the Blair government (although as delegates ruefully noted, its attempts to do the same in regions across the north of England were far less successful).
The party has been outflanked on this issue by the Conservatives in recent years, with the former chancellor, George Osborne, championing a bold agenda for devolution in major city-regions across England, including the introduction of new metro-mayors in May next year.
With the new Theresa May government seemingly hesitant about giving its full backing to devolution, Labour had a prime opportunity to steal a march on the government by seizing the cities and devolution agenda and putting it at the heart of policy as it prepares for a possible snap election.
Over the course of the week, we heard promises from John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, that a Labour government would help places take back control while Jeremy Corbyn used his leader’s speech to set out a vision of “municipal socialism” for the 21stcentury.
Some of the ideas outlined by Corbyn would undoubtedly help to drive economic growth. The Labour leader was right, for example, to emphasise the need to boost research and development, improve skill levels and invest in transport while his pledge to allow councils to borrow to build more homes would help unlock more of the funding they need to address housing shortages.
Yet while Corbyn listed at length the achievements of Labour councils across the country, there was a distinct lack of policies to help those councils make their own decisions about how to meet the challenges they face (housing aside). Corbyn missed the chance to set out plans to enable city regions to retain local tax revenues for investment in jobs and growth — something for which many Labour council leaders have called.
Rather than outlining an ambitious vision to hand places and people more powers, most of Corbyn’s proposals to change the country represent a much more top-down, centralised approach to policy-making — from his plans for a national education service, to promises to renationalise the railways. All of which leaves a nagging concern that a Corbyn government would primarily view local government as a platform to deliver its big national policy priorities.
And so as we look back on the conference, there is a sense that Labour is no closer to offering a bold vision for devolution. With the Conservatives having recently prevaricated on the agenda, and with Labour poised to win most of the metro-mayor contests next year, it was a golden opportunity for the party leadership to reclaim the mantle of torch-bearers for decentralisation — an opportunity Corbyn has failed to seize, but which May might grasp next week.
Read the original article on Times Red Box.