by Kevin Meagher
Localism is one of those annoyingly wispy catch-alls in British politics that never actually takes corporeal form. Like the big society, deciphering its linguistic mysteries would keep an abbeyful of medieval monks busy.
But things are getting clearer. As of last week, localism now means big city mayors.
Local government minister Greg Clark’s confirmation that we could see powerful elected mayors running Manchester, Liverpool, Bradford, Leeds, Newcastle, Sheffield, Nottingham, Wakefield, Bristol, Birmingham and Coventry as early as this November is nothing short of landmark.
Look at it this way: the prospect of a dozen big city mayors (Leicester was due to hold a referendum with the rest but opted to switch early) represents the biggest potential transfer of political power since Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1998.
Actually, forget the Welsh, so to speak; the joint population of England’s eleven largest cities and conurbations dwarfs that of the principality. While Birmingham and Leeds combined are more populous than Northern Ireland.
This new version of localism represents a real tilting of power away from Whitehall and towards our other great cities and conurbations. A moment where powerful new political voices with huge mandates emerge in new centres of power and influence.
Unfortunately, many in the Labour tribe remain unconvinced there is such a prize to be had. The party issued no press release heralding last week’s news that mayors are now within sight and no offer to form cross-party yes campaigns to win the referendums was forthcoming.
In fact Labour MPs were busy in parliament voting against the orders that paved the way for May’s referendums. Despite the last Labour manifesto’s support for city mayors, it remains a cause unloved by many who should be its staunchest advocates.
Yet last Thursday, Salford – that impregnable citadel of Labourism – saw 56% of voting Salfordians choose an elected mayor in a referendum, ignoring the local Labour council and the city’s MPs who campaigned against the proposal.
Labour risks being similarly out of tune with voters in May. What is the problem? With additional executive powers – currently under review – mayors could be utterly transformative figures.
But even without them they are still roles worth having. At the very least mayors will provide high-visibility municipal leadership. Bring innovation to local policy-making. Ensure direct accountability. Set clearer priorities. Sharpen up decision-making.
What is more, a college of big city mayors would become a compelling new voice in British politics. A counterweight to central government with a huge democratic mandate that any government would have to take seriously.
Instead of reading endless reports about Boris Johnson’s plans for an island airport in the Thames, we might just hear a bit more about what’s happening in Bristol, Leeds or Liverpool instead.
So, illogically, frustratingly, disappointingly, localism is, it seems, what the Tory party does. And Labour does not.
This is the party at its pig-headed worst. Councillors make up the officer class in any political party and we are in hock, it seems, to ours. Many loathe the prospect of elected mayors. Theirs is an emotional attachment to the desiccated status quo where they do not seem to accept the current system can be improved upon.
Usually, it has to be said, for the most myopic reasons. Unlike council leaders, they fear elected mayors would no longer be primus inter pares with backbenchers, instead using their huge direct mandate to get their way every time.
The prize on offer outweighs such a puny calculation.
Of course in government we talked the localist talk. At times, enthusiastically. David Miliband even wanted “double devolution”, with power dispersing from Whitehall to councils, down to communities. But ministers never really converted the rhetoric of localism into reality.
We created regional development agencies with the flaky promise that they might turn into small, strategic elected bodies. Yet those of us who fought the fight for elected regional assemblies back in 2004 were left on the beach like Cuban irregulars at the Bay of Pigs, without the air cover we were promised when the government wobbled and finally pulled the plug on the idea. Unlike the Cubans, it has to be said, we had a decent cause worth fighting for.
And an issue that is not going to go away. In government, we never gave any serious thought to what our response to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution should be. What we should have done as a supplement to national devolution was to create English länder instead; powerful regions with real political heft.
The redistribution of power is an opportunity Labour missed. It is something Blairites, Brownites, New Labour and Old Labour alike failed to grasp with necessary gusto. Labour’s instinct to horde power at the centre triumphed.
What we should have been doing was making sure that no government could ever again decimate our regional economies the way Mrs Thatcher did in the early 1980s. To do that we should have dispersed power from the centre, creating a bulwark against ideological policy-making in Whitehall.
Although we may have coined the term localism our reluctance to act on it saw us fail to permanently alter the balance of power in Britain. We have a chance to rectify that mistake by supporting elected mayors now.
But will we take it?
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.