by Jonathan Todd
Alan Bennett has written that he felt growing up in Leeds in the 1940s can’t have been unlike growing up in a fifteenth-century Italian city state, such was Leeds’ sense of itself. Now Leeds has more councillors over the age of 80 than under the age of 35. It is not ageist to see this, sadly, as a sign of civic decline.
Similarly, the grandeur of Manchester town hall, which will again play host to events at Labour party conference, seems to recall a time when the city was more certainly in command of its future.
Paul Salveson recently published a book that describes and celebrates a distinctive northern socialism that never waited for a hand out or hand up from London. Long before the classic social democracy of Crosland and Hattersley, which saw mechanical reform from the commanding heights of Whitehall as the road to socialism, Salveson’s heroes – such as Hannah Mitchell, Benjamin Rushton and Ben Turner – got on with morally reforming themselves and their communities with a swagger to put the Stone Roses in the shade.
Salveson’s writings uncover a past where active equality, driven by civic pride, was the norm. A pride which brings to mind in a more localised sense a line that Tim Soutphommasane, an inspiration to Jon Cruddas, is said to be fond of: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
This is not the socialism of ambiguous metropolitanism but an urgency to right the wrongs and champion the distinctiveness of the particular and specific place that forms and is formed by its people.
The building blocks of the national rebuilding that Cruddas seeks are to be found in recovering this urgency. The UK will be rebuilt street by street, community by community, city by city, country by country.
Hope does not reside in nebulous, arm-chair discussions on the nature of Britishness, Englishness or Scottishness, but in the practical steps of active equality. Action precedes hope, not the other way around, pace Barack Obama 2008 vintage.
Unsurprisingly, Richard Florida reports that mayors are more popular than other politicians. They are potent vessels of civic pride, which Mitchell, Rushton and Turner would recognise, targeted only upon pragmatic solutions. While Whitehall mandarins fight their turf wars and most politicians fixate on the urgent, mayors knock heads together, cross dress and build allegiances beyond tribal lines as required to secure the important.
Mayors were largely rejected at referendums in England in May. However, as Henry Ford knew, people would have stated a preference for faster horses before knowing what cars are. As far as possible, the attributes of automobiles must now be grafted on to the equine structures that grasp towards leadership of our cities. In other words, we should devolve power to the existing institutions, rather than seeking to have institutional change precede this. Putting rocket boosters under the city deals programme is an obvious way of advancing this.
The incentive that the government are offering to councils of retention of 50 percent of business rates raised in enterprise zones could contribute towards this by being adapted and extended. It should be adapted to reflect the rate of change in business rate generation, not the level, so that less prosperous areas are not further disadvantaged. Its logic should be extended to other areas: Why couldn’t the government, for example, agree with localities a set of outcome indicators to be targeted by their early intervention grant and promise to increase funding in future rounds commensurate to their performance against these indicators?
This would put councils in a position where they are incentivised to break down whatever barriers to better public health outcomes exist in their locality. It may, in some senses, be astonishing that the public sector does not already work in this way, but the reality demands a twin-track of devolution of powers to our cities and regions and intelligent reform to our public sector plumbing to have it incentivise delivery by public servants of outcomes valued by the public.
The debate on what it means to be Brummie that Cllr Waseem Zaffar has led has uncovered deep reserves of civic pride, as the #mybrum hashtag attests. Such raw material built Manchester town hall and was the foundation of the Leeds of Bennett’s youth. This material has too often been squandered by structures that divide the public sector against itself and those that is intended to serve.
The past that Salveson recalls and future that Zaffar reaches towards demand a different kind of public sector: one that is truly united with its citizenry.
Next I will argue that public sector reform does not just matter in improving public sector outcomes but also to improving our economic performance.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist