Thursday, 11 September 2014

Labour 'lite' and late again on decentralisation

Today were see launched plans for City State devolution within England. These are by their very nature inadequate as a response to what is happening in Scotland with Devo Max. We should remember that Glasgow has the biggest City Deal worth £90billion, it is not an alternative to the Scottish parliament it is as well as. We need to recapture our confidence in Regionalism if we are to have an adequate answer to the challenge, and then we need to make afresh the federalist case.

I was watching John Prescott getting a hard time in Rutherglen on the TV last evening. What a wholly unconvincing advocate of decentralisation he proved to be. There should be no surprise there, it was he who produced the pathetic proposals for NE devolution which were so bad they scuppered devolution within England-even now Labour's proposals on tax powers for a Scottish Parliament if there is a No vote and 'lite' compared even to the Tories let alone Ming Campbell's Commission.

I have for 40 years or more been an un ashamed advocate of federalism both within the UK and on a wider European level. I remember watching Callaghan rejecting the idea of federalism with an evident distaste for a 'foreign' idea.

Back in early July I was arguing for real powers to be devolved-and preferably entrenched in a written constitution.

Just judging by our ruling Labour party in Sefton 'democratic centralism' is part of their DNA. It was always deep in the soul of the Labour party who at every turn have rejected decentralisation in favour of central control and conformity. David Marquand charts the debates in 1945 for a localised Health Service and how that was lost by spurious arguments for uniformity and efficiency. (put in link)

It must be admitted that there are some in the Labour party who raise their heads to argue an alternative case-the late John Mackintosh, Evan Luard amongst others. The present MP Graham Allen is also raising important ideas in his new Magna Carat initiative.

Anyway I thought it was appropriate to reproduce the posting I wrote in early July:






I am mightily unimpressed by the consensus on Northern devolution that is emerging in London. We will face new challenges post the Scottish referendum whether it results in 'Independence' or Devo Max. None of the 'lite' proposals emanating from  the SE-whether from Heseltine, Osborne, Clegg or the Labour Party -adequately take account of the new challenges we face. Let us compare and contrast the proposals.

The Scottish Challenge

  • The Scottish Parliament already has significant powers and now even the Tories are proposing to give them more. Win or loose the referendum the Hollywood Parliament is going to have tax raising powers which may include: 
  • control over income tax, bands and rates,
  • powers over inheritance tax and capital gains tax,
  • existing powers over Stamp Duty,
  • land fill levy,
  • the aggregates levy and air passenger duty
  • corporation tax
  • New powers to borrow to balance the economic cycle and take long term decisions on investment
In addition to that package those of us advocating a federal solution for Britain would wish to see a further diffusion of power to local government and communities. Ming Campbell's Commission recommended;
  • Financial freedoms for local authorities
  • Removal of powers for Ministers to over rule local authorities
  • Power over council tax and business rates to rest with Local Authorities
  • General powers of competence
  • Requiring Councils to raise roughly half their money
The Commission added

'The Commission goes further in recommending new rights for local communities to take over services in their areas and to require the co-operation of councils, national government and quangos to do so. The recommendations also offer the opportunity to local communities to establish new burgh councils or other mechanisms if they want to put in place clear local control of services.
The final recommendation entrenches local government as envisaged by the original (Scottish) constitutional convention. 

Besides this what is the North being offered?

Well Mark Tavernier's chorus from the Liberator Song book may be the appropriate response. The North is paying a heavy price for John Prescott's incompetence when he brought in the pathetic proposals for  Devo Minimums that were rejected by the North East .

What is on offer now is not a lot better. It is based on the current fad for Balkanising the North into warring City States with few real powers. It is the perfect Whitehall solution to decentralisation of power within England-hand over as little as possible, 'nothing you would notice', but behave as if the proposals are truly radical.

Jim Hancock reflected that:....'by contrast the North of England is bought off by City Deals, Combined Authorities, Elected Mayors, Local Enterprise Partnerships and Regional Growth Funds.'. He continues

'Let’s remember that this demand for Scottish independence has been driven since the 1970s by economic grievances, largely centred on North Sea oil. In that it differs from independence movements in Quebec and Catalonia where political and cultural factors are more to the fore.

Then there is the dramatic effect independence would have on British politics. 59 Scottish Labour MPs would be out of Westminster. The party that relies on London, the north and Scotland to form a government would be very lucky ever to see power at Westminster again. The Tories, with their strength in southern England, would be bound to reflect those interests at the expense of the North.

We need to hope for a no vote, but prepare to welcome the headquarters of Scottish based multi nationals relocating in the North after independence rather than London and demand a Council of the North to give northern business and people real strategic and economic power here'

If we are serious about federalism then we need a Council of the North to administer the sort of strategic economic powers that Scotland will achieve post referendum. The present architecture for devolution is simply inadequate.

One key flaw in the proposals that is felt very keenly in vast tracts of the North is simply stated-we do not all live and work in Cities. The systematic way in which the City centric policies are destroying the economic prosperity of market towns, rural areas and even large boroughs within the region should be unacceptable to us

Part of the Federal proposals drawn up by Ming's Commission that I have quoted above is about decentralisation within Regions. Take Southport as an example. The concentration on Liverpool is undermining our economy. There has just been a major report on Rail Strategy for the City region. It ignores Southport. Our great need is to re-open our transport connections to the North and the East-our traditional hinterland. Our economy which is founded on tourism and retail  requires people to be able to get here easily. Since the wretched county of Merseyside has been created we have seen very little investment in those essential links. Everything has been poured into the narrow corridor to the South. Our retail offer is competing with Liverpool One which has had bucket loads of investment and will shortly get enhanced rail links. We regularly have business rates reduced because of the impact of Liverpool One. Our Conference trade is equally impacted. If it is difficult to get here why bother coming? And now our residents are meant to be pleased to see their council tax being spent to further scupper our economy. In significant part the decisions made in the 1970's made this inevitable


The North needs to plan across the whole region. We need real power decentraliseded. And just as Highlanders are seeking devolution in Scotland so those of us outside of the big cities require that our economic needs are catered for.We need the powers of this new constitutional settlement enshrined in a written constitution so that the are truly diffused not merely devolved for a season. From London The North may just be the cities -it is much more than that.

Jim Hancock, who I quoted above, has I think got it right when he writes that even if there is a Lab/Con consensus on the 'lite' form of devolution the civil service will scupper it.

 It is secretive and bitterly opposed to any policy that would take power and influence away from Whitehall. It is the Civil Service. They used to wear bowler hats, now they are less identifiable. Their appearance might change but they’re basic attitude to the North will never change.
They know little about our area. They regard the North as a place populated with people with begging bowls, trying to get money which they haven’t the expertise to spend. They sometimes acknowledge people like Manchester Council leader Sir Richard Leese, but generally believe northern politicians are Town Hall minnows who can’t be trusted with the cash. ( I would add that Mind you Mark Dowd and his like during the long spell in charge of Merseytravel did there best to conform to that negative stereotype IBB ) At a recent conference I heard one former senior Treasury official bragging that as far as civil servants are concerned there never has been a regional policy.
This situation has prevailed for many decades even when there were civil servants in regional government offices. Some tried to make a difference, most couldn’t wait for a posting back to London.
Tony Blair invaded Iraq but he never had the guts to demand his civil servants implement John Prescott’s vision for well resourced development agencies democratically controlled by assemblies. We elect the politicians and they should tell the civil servants, with the threat of dismissal, to get on with what the elected government propose.
So let’s see what happens after the election. Both parties want to devolve money and power to the North. I forecast the civil service will first of all go slow, then the Treasury will reduce the money available, then the powers will be trimmed.



It is this context that John Pugh, speaking at his adoption meeting in Southport last week, called for a 'Peoples' Convention of the North' rather like the Scottish Convention that ushered in the Holyrood Parliament. We need to get on with the task of creating a Federal constitution which doesn't treat England as a unitary state. If Scotland had been offered a City Deal for Edinburgh and Glasgow instead of a Parliament I can guess their response.

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