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Tony Travers: Devolution could unite Labour

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A couple of days at the Labour party conference would have left any visitor wondering how far the party is prepared to go in exploring a radical devolution policy. At present, England is left with the remnants of George Osborne and David Cameron’s city and county regional initiative.

We do not yet know if Theresa May’s government will want to continue with her predecessor’s approach to devolution. The weeks since the new prime minister took office have been characterised by remarkably few policy announcements. Are we to expect further service and funding deals, or will we find we have reached a high water-mark in terms of devolved power?

Perhaps the autumn statement will provide clues. Vast significance is now ascribed to this announcement. But, in truth, even Philip Hammond is in the dark about important elements of Britain’s economic future. If we are to face ‘hard Brexit’ there is little certainty as to how the economy would then perform. Never quite applying Article 50 would have a very different outcome.

Given the silence from the government, there is an opportunity for the Opposition to make the political weather. Labour could advocate a more radical devolutionary future and enjoy the heart-warming pleasure of hearing Conservative councillors offer them support. But, thus far, Labour has not come forward with anything very radical.

Yet it was John Healey and other Labour ministers who initiated the concept of ‘city regions’ during the late 2000s, having created the Greater London Authority and devolved government to Scotland and Wales. The party made good progress with new structures and also attempted non-domestic rate reform.

In short, Labour was mildly devolutionary. With so many issues currently dividing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership from most of his MPs, surely a strong push for a shift of power away from the centre would unite them? With Sadiq Khan just elected in the capital and Labour in line to win a number of the 2017 mayoral races, what’s not to like?

The referendum vote was a reminder that different parts of the UK have very different electoral concerns. In a vibrant democracy, such difference would be reflected in opportunities to make local decisions about taxation, public spending and industrial strategy. Labour has a chance to press the government to sharpen its devolutionary act.

Tony Travers, director, LSE London

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