Devolution and federalism are coming. Although some within the Labour movement still seek to deny the reality of these twin inevitabilities, the best hope for our revival is not merely to accept the change that is coming, but to pioneer it.
You may have read the Labour Vision articles written by my colleagues, Rob Wilkinson and Matthew Hexter, warning readers about Labour’s incoherence on Brexit, as well as the need for Labour to champion the devolution of powers away from Westminster, particularly in England.
Politics itself is inexorably travelling in this direction, with the right in Britain committed in words, if not in deeds, to give power back to the towns and cities that were once the economic bedrock of this nation. Yet Labour has shown little or no leadership on these seminal issues. What, exactly, was our response to the masterly, albeit meaningless, ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda sponsored by George Osborne?
Labour Vision is beginning to set out the way in which this profound devolution of powers away from Westminster might look, with Matthew Hexter describing yesterday the 9 regions he believes ought to have their own regional assembly. This is a suggestion only, and how federalism ultimately shapes up remains to be seen, but it is essential that Labour leads that debate, and doesn’t just follow it.
What’s more, the Labour Party itself needs to reflect the changes that devolution and federalism will bring to our country and to our society. In the Labour Vision launch article, I set out the unique electoral challenge Labour faces in trying to unite its two traditional sets of supporters – the working classes of once-industrial Britain and socially liberal inner-city dwellers.
More and more it seems that a Labour Party directed almost exclusively from London simply cannot unite the wide variety of communities and people we need in order to win a general election. This is not to criticise any one individual, but, for instance, the current make-up of the Shadow Cabinet is worryingly skewed towards London. London is not the country, as Brexit showed, and while it is our capital city, a party that is consumed by it will fail to speak up for, let alone understand, the nation.
So, what to do? There is no single silver bullet to address the way forward for Labour in this rapidly dividing kingdom. I have written before about the need for Labour to make its local government leaders as important to the leadership of the movement as our Members of Parliament. But perhaps we need to go further and give our hundreds of thousands of new members the chance to formally elect regional leaders to speak for the Party in the parts of England that are so out of synch with London.
The immediate rejoinder to this from statists would, of course, be that such an arrangement would weaken the office of the Leader of the Labour Party. However, I would still expect the next Labour Prime Minister to be the Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Understanding the need for Labour’s leader – whoever he or she may be – to trust the wider party with its governance is simply to accept the way in which a presidential prime minister in the mould of Thatcher or Blair is unlikely to succeed in the new age of federalism.
Real strength of leadership, therefore, would be shown by a Labour leadership willing to entrust the wider governance of the Labour Party to members, councillors and regional leaders across the country who are far closer to, and therefore far better understand, the communities they represent and champion. In this new model, the Leader of the Labour Party could act as a figurehead freed up to press the Government exclusively in Parliament, while the elected regional leaders would be the spokespeople for the Party in the country.
These spokespeople would be given a clear ‘listening brief’ in an attempt to revive ‘Labour Listens’ in the way Vernon Coaker is seeking to do with his brave and noble tour of the country to find reasons the Party is failing to connect with voters. They would also be free to part company with the Labour leadership on issues affecting their region if they saw fit, so that the impression of a London Labour Party ill-at-ease with the rest of the country would apply less and less over time.
This would also, of course, increase the likelihood of the Labour Party placing into positions of responsibility and power far more working class members, female members, BAME members, LGBTQ+ members and disabled members. Looking back through Labour’s long history, one fails to uncover a Labour leader who has not been at least nominally straight, white, middle class and male.
Whether the Labour Party at its current moment of startled introspection would be brave enough to take the necessary steps towards regional leadership is not clear. The one luxury of opposition, however, is that the Party has the space to re-model itself more freely than it would do if it were in government.
2016 has been a frenetic and, in many parts, terrifying year in British politics. We should expect the pace of change to accelerate in 2017, and it is with that sobering prospect in mind that Labour members should address the challenges we face with a willingness not to fear the call of the British people for more control over their lives, but to embrace it.
As Aneurin Bevan once so simply, but aptly remarked, “The purpose of winning power is to give it away.”