by Kevin Meagher
It’s quite feasible that the Scottish independence referendum may be seen, in time, as merely a prelude to a much bigger reconfiguration where power sits and how it is used in Britain. For now, at least, the battle is on to grab the commanding heights of the debate about how we devolve power from Westminster and Whitehall to English localities.
Yet, the pursuit of English devolution, or localism, (or whatever we’re calling it these days) does not fit neatly on either the right or left of British politics. Both parties have had their moments. Labour introduced regional development agencies and planning strategies while the Tories have given councils more economic freedom through their city deals.
Equally, both have black marks against them. The last Labour government loved its top-down targets, while the Tories have always been happiest governing from the centre, stripping councils of their powers (particularly with the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering in the 1980s) and even going as far as abolishing the Greater London Council.
For Labour to fend off siren calls for an English Parliament, Ed Miliband needs to embrace devolution from first principles, accepting that in future the centre should not be able to dictate to local and devolved authorities and this may, in turn, lead to postcode lotteries in service provision.
Yet, the very thought of not being able to use the machinery of the state to drive micro-outcomes offends the Fabianist impulses of many Labour politicians. After all, it was Labour minister Douglas Jay who remarked that “the gentleman in Whitehall is usually right”.
Its twenty years ago since Tony Blair stood before the Labour party conference and signalled his intention to rewrite Labour’s constitution to “say what we mean and mean what we say.” Ed Miliband needs to do something similar this week. He could use his leader’s speech on Tuesday to make the case that Labour ‘s default impulse is now to devolve power from the centre to the lowest practicable level.
The revised version of Clause Four that was finally agreed by the party in 1995 pledged to create a society where “…power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few”. Miliband could propose an alteration, committing his government to building a country where:
“…wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, and where power is exercised at the lowest possible level at all times.”
A political race is now on to make sense of our lopsided devolution settlement and symbolism matters. If Labour is serious about winning it, then, once again, it needs to say what it means and mean what it says.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut