The Labour Party has never been instinctively localist.
Its greatest achievements such as the welfare state and the NHS are vast enterprises that made full use of the national levers of power.
The return to power after the wilderness years of the 1980s and 1990s saw Labour ministers reach again for those levers. This time there was an inspection regime and distrust of its local government base. The number of Labour councils diminished, weakening the link with local government.
Today, Labour runs the majority of our great cities and most London boroughs. Nearly half the population lives in Labour council areas. While Labour has been out of power nationally, Labour council leaders have been governing impressively. A cadre of new leaders has emerged to reshape progressive politics in an era of austerity. Liverpool, Newcastle, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Oxford and Cambridge are all economic drivers and led by Labour.
Under Ed Miliband, Labour spectacularly botched the opportunity to draw on the local to improve its national policy offer.
Jeremy Corbyn recently told council leaders: “Labour will be the real party of devolution and a Labour government in 2020 will give local councils real powers to innovate, to borrow and to invest.”
It’s a bold statement but there’s no indication of what it might mean in practice. Meanwhile, Labour cities are doing deals with the Treasury on exactly these issues.
There were mixed messages on Corbyn’s appointment as to whether councils should set illegal budgets. This was swiftly corrected by shadow chancellor John McDonnell but led many Labour leaders to question the new regime’s motives. Labour leaders fear that the leadership’s instincts are for a more centralised, command-and-control statism. They have emerged from five hard years as radical pragmatists; in Corbyn they see the radical but not the pragmatist.
Councillors face a difficult few months ahead. Budgets will be passed by Labour authorities that deliver a difficult four-year funding settlement. The party is briefing that it could lose 200 council seats in May. Councillors will be asked to fight to keep Labour in power in Wales, deliver a Labour mayoralty in London and then to fight for a yes vote in the EU referendum. As they do they face increasing opposition at branch level from Momentum.
The Conservatives have their own disagreements with their councillor base on Europe and on the funding settlement. There’s a golden opportunity for Labour to reconnect with local government and make local innovation the driver of national policy.
Devolution is happening in Labour strongholds, delivered by a Tory chancellor. Labour needs to understand this and should fight the next election as genuinely radical localists. Governance in Britain is changing and it won’t wait for Labour to realise that.
Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive, Local Government Information Unit