Thursday, November 6, 2014

Manchester's Mayor - A half baked idea

So Manchester is getting a mayor, and the applause appears near universal. To my mind, however, for socialists, proponents of devolution, Labour supporters and proponents of accountable democracy, this represents not a bright new dawn, but a repetition of the worst elements of devolution which has been experimented with over the last forty years. Hopefully, Labour will wake up and burst this bubble – not through wholesale opposition, but the bold, brave and universal devolution that the whole of the UK needs.

So what’s my opposition, and why? And what’s the response from socialists who want a new constitutional settlement?

My biggest issue is that it’s another piecemeal attempt at regional government. It has relied on the wrangling of the personalities involved, the powers they have been offered – and the interest that those personalities have in the control and administration on the table. It’s not a broad basis for regional government across the UK, rather it answers a very particular set of questions for the local authorities involved in this consultation, we’re still lacking a new underpinning for the allocation of power across the UK.

Such imbalanced ‘devolution’ has created massive problems – London being the most obvious example. As there is no counter-balance to London’s success in running its affairs elsewhere in the UK, it’s just resulted in further centralisation in a particular region, and the sucking away of investment and innovation from other areas. It’s easy to see this happening again in a northern lop-sided devolution such has been outlined – especially with Liverpool, Leeds and West Yorkshire so close to Greater Manchester, who now have no way to compete with this new ‘city region’.

This isn’t devolution, this is re-centralisation. There is a country outside the M25 that’s not Manchester, but Manchester and the North West have very successfully managed to brand themselves as the ‘other’. The relocation of the BBC is the best example of this – with production being reduced in Yorkshire and effectively shut in Birmingham, all as the BBC uses the rhetoric of the regions to solve every ill from London-centric programming to cost implications. Manchester is now getting a further boost to this quite destructive (albeit laudably successful) self-created image. The truth is that Manchester has the individuals and the innovation to make the current local government compromise work well, less dynamic authorities need a new settlement much more urgently. So why does Manchester get looked at first? Rewarding success is one way of looking at it – embedding failure is the other.

And what of Oldham? Or Wigan? Or Bolton? There’s nothing in this new compromise to boost those smaller areas within the new metropolis. Indeed, the worrying tone from the whole exercise for London is that there is a consideration that the current administrative compromise in the capital is sufficient. Actually, dynamic local authorities need more powers so as they can innovate and best utilise those powers and funds which are ineffectively run by a centralised authority, whether that be in Westminster or a city hall. These are powers like licensing, planning, community healthcare and employment. Again, a meaningful conversation about the allocation of powers in along the principles of subsidiarity has been side-stepped with a new bit of glitz. Local authorities need boosting too – and that boost is even more urgent when they should be providing a counter-balance to a big regional authority as well as Westminster. Nothing on offer here does that.

The great failure of the 1970s local government compromise was that far too much effort and attention was placed on the big cities at the centre of the new counties – Birmingham in the West Midlands, Leeds in West Yorkshire, Sheffield in South Yorkshire, Manchester in Greater Manchester and so on. This new proposal does just that again, because there’s no local government counterbalance to the regional authority. Worse than that, it’s centralisation in a person, not just a region.

In London we see the difficulties in holding a mayor to account. Where elected mayors were rejected by the people in referenda over the last decade or so (Manchester included, it must be noted) the main concern has been about the creation of some local oligarch, not really about the powers that they would hold. Where they have been elected (most painfully in Doncaster), this has proven to be true. It is antithetical to the British culture of government to have such power vested in one individual. As we see in London, the assembly is largely ineffective at hammering home the deficiencies of Boris, and whereas Ken boldly took the reins of a raft of powers he was never intended to have, the assembly has lagged behind – having no ability to create an effective level of scrutiny of the powers amassed by these big personalities.

Is this due to the individuals involved? Certainly not. There are a number of exceptionally good assembly members in London, but the assembly is not empowered, as it is secondary to that mayor. Most of the good work that’s done by the assembly is either local or constituency based or as a result of the blessing of the mayor. I, for one, prefer collegiate decision-making processes. I, for one, want our leaders scrutinised by a political grouping, as well as a chamber, as well as the people once every four years.

Finally, as a last whinge, I’m alarmed by the talk of further devolution along this pattern of ‘city regions’. Although this does, in part, answer my worries about lop-sided devolution it throws up two further questions. Firstly: why not everywhere at once to stop some regions getting a head-start? Nick Clegg has even spoken about how this is part of the strategy, so regions can ‘compete against the South’ as well as emerging economies across the world. Competition is not going to breed success, only elimination and further exacerbate disparities between regions. Of course, the Lib Dems, desperate to sacrifice anything on the cold altar of homogenous market competition, blindly believe in an uncontrolled hand of the market rescuing communities in a heated battle of white-hot capitalist innovation. One would have hoped that some sense of political economy, history or frankly a quick glance at the Beveridge Report might have dampened this, but four years of Con-Dem government has shown that they have a blind zeal for markets and a hate for any form of market redress. Royal Mail anyone?

Secondly: what about rural communities? The great untold shame of 21st Century Britain is the poverty and pain in which our rural communities live from Cornwall to the Scottish borders. These are the areas that would benefit most from actual regionalisation – and an actual re-allocation of powers, not just a shift in admin. The ability to raise tax revenue, for instance, would benefit these areas most, even in but even the reliance of so many rural communities on shoddy public transport which limits economic, social and cultural opportunities, which can only be improved by regionalisation. Relying on a city-region model disadvantages not only rural and semi-rural regions, but the rural parts of those city regions which are particularly overlooked. An individually elected mayor, heavily reliant on big conurbations for votes are unable to respond effectively to rural issues and the growing crises in rural education, employment and child poverty – again, Doncaster is a real example of this failure.

So where do we go? To me, the answer is obvious. Firstly we have a consistent model of devolution across the UK, in order to end the democratic deficit that currently exists from region to region. Next, we look at every element of infrastructure, taxation and welfare and decide on the smallest unit of government which can effectively deliver such services – from the parish council to Brussels. And let’s eliminate the meaningless levels of tokenistic democracy that now litter our public services – elected NHS boards, Police and Crime Commissioners spring to mind.  Those powers should also be given to the lowest unit of government, ensuring an holistic approach, led by innovative policy-makers and local voices, rather than vaguely interested individuals with no real mandate. We then set levels of statutory minima of provision to be provided in each area of competence (a library, school, job centre, post office, transport links, theatre, public houses, health centres, hospitals, fire stations, policing…).

Allowing for a new model of redistribution between areas and regions we can then let local areas get on with governing themselves, in a collegiate and collective way, sharing services, expertise and strengths.

There’s a massive question for the Labour Party here – either we believe in effective local government and power in communities, or we don’t. We can’t let this agenda be overtaken by the Tories – especially when they appear to be empowering some communities who are solidly our people. In the wake of the Scottish referendum, and the inevitable West Lothian questioning, we should have a plan in the wings for a new constitutional settlement. I’ve got a wish-list, but at this point in the game, anything consistent will do.