At the end of a year finding my feet in Parliament, I now hold shadow ministerial responsibility for Labour’s approach to local government and devolution.
As a councillor for 13 years, the former leader of a large council, and having sat as a member of one of the most developed combined authorities in Greater Manchester, I have seen firsthand the difference that can be made by local people coming together to make their community a better place. That experience shapes these reflections on where English devolution has got to so far and where it needs to go next.
First though, we must consider the wider context. The EU referendum confirmed what we had been hearing on the doorstep for some time: people are fed up with having things done to them and being let down by a system that does not feel as if it is designed for their benefit. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States are both seismic political ruptures that demonstrate palpably how, on both sides of the Atlantic, many people consider established politics to be an elite, distant and disempowering affair to which they cannot relate.
People want and need a stake and a say in the way their society is organised. Too many people feel that they lack that voice. We need to address, not dismiss, this profound and prevailing sense of democratic deficit. People need to feel they have some influence over the environments in which they lead their lives. Our centralist settlement currently leaves them feeling powerless.
Devolution is a distinct Labour ambition: working to shift power from the privileged few and hand it to the many. Done right, it means politics done with people, not just for them. My party’s future cannot lie in a central statism that believes the country’s problems can all be fixed by someone pulling a big lever in SW1.
Labour in local government has already proven itself a hotbed of innovation. Even operating in a constrained, centralised framework with ever-less funding, where it would be understandable to keep heads down and focus on managing decline, we have seen an inspiring spirit of entrepreneurial enterprise from Labour councils.
Power held tightly at the centre will not achieve the change our communities demand. As things stand, we have seen rising inequality and stubbornly low skills, coupled with weak local economies. The NHS is under strain and the social care system is at breaking point. Neither the government nor the private sector has built the homes we need. We ought to see devolution as an opportunity to redefine how we govern, how we grow our economies and how we deliver the best possible public services. The status quo will fail many and is no longer sustainable.
As for the machinery of government, rather than starting with new structures when it comes to devolution, it is far better that we build on the established and proven building blocks of local government. The real test should not be whether areas accept a directly elected mayor, but more that local government puts grassroots community organisation at the heart of decision-making, supported by fair funding based on need, with local government holding the ring on public services.
Not only would we see better decision making, better tailored public services and more efficient use of money, but, more than that, we could show the public that we have heard them loud and clear. People want control to determine their future and that of their children and grandchildren. They are unwilling to wait patiently for a better tomorrow that, for too many, never comes.
I do not think we should throw all the existing cards up in the air. We just need enough flex in the system to accommodate subsidiarity at the levels each community feels is right for them. Devolution, then, in two-tier county and district areas can certainly work, but we need to see evidence of the viability of a proposed devolved authority.
Let us be radical in our approach to devolution and its relationship to finance and public service reform. We do not just need temporary cover while we wait to improve our position nationally. We need to rewire the country and, in doing so, rewrite the rules of the game.
Jim McMahon (Lab), shadow minister for local government and devolution and Oldham West & Royton MP