Leader of the Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, has transformed a slogan closely aligned with Vote Leave during the nation’s EU Referendum into a promise for greater local agency within Britain’s political process.
Speaking for the first time since the New Year, Starmer set forth his party’s plans to return crucial decisions back to local authorities. The Labour Leader said that he wished to see a “decade of national renewal”, with the devolution of powers regarding policy areas such as housing and childcare to local governments being a part of this grand plan.
Making reference to the fact that ‘Take Back Control’ had been closely linked to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016, Starmer stated that he wanted to turn this Brexit mantra into a national “solution” which could unite both areas that voted to Leave and those that voted Remain.
The reason for Labour’s commitment to local governance is in part a response to their dismal performance in the 2019 General Election, which saw many former Labour heartlands turn to the Conservatives due to their determination to ‘Get Brexit Done’. By returning power to local communities therefore, Starmer hopes for a Labour resurgence in areas once dedicated to the Labour Party.
As well as this, it is a policy designed to separate Labour from their image as the party of high spend. Starmer was keen to point out that a future Labour government would not be able to simply “spend [their] way” out of the current economic hardship that the nation finds itself in. Giving local communities control over local finances, therefore, would bypass the need for widespread spending by Westminster and could result in more means-based economic policy for poorer counties in the UK.
This is not the first time that the Labour Party have committed to a devolution of powers to individual nations within the UK. Under Tony Blair’s premiership, both Wales and Scotland were granted devolution in the form of local governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh respectively, allowing a directly elected parliament to set budgets and garner a degree of autonomy from Westminster.
In 2004, the North East of England was given the chance to vote for a regional assembly which would be in control of local finances as well as infrastructure improvements, whether in the form of travel and road links or with regard to education and health budgets. In an area then dominated by the Labour Party – 28 out of 30 constituencies were held by Labour at the time – the region voted against the party line by voting against the inception of a regional assembly by a massive 78% to 22%.
The Brexit campaign, however, brought to light intense feelings of being left behind. Areas of low economic stability, such as the North East of England, voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU, believing that it would grant them with greater say in the running of Westminster.
Starmer’s return to devolution, then, is one that may prove to be much more popular than it would have been before the 2016 EU Referendum. With the government’s current approval standing at a woeful 13%, according to YouGov, there is potential for a surge in popularity for increased local autonomy.
Whether simply granting increased fiscal and political autonomy to local areas will help to solve national crises, with the current focus being on the NHS and education budgets following Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s speech, is up for debate; Conservative Foreign Secretary James Cleverly accused Sir Keir of simply jumping on the back of Conservative policy, with the party having already increased regional powers through the introduction of local mayors.
Starmer’s speech also invoked criticism from his own party, with his statement that it would be impractical to offer everything through the state setting off alarm bells to those on the left of his party. His proposal of a “partnership model” between the public and private sectors goes against founding principles of the Labour Party, an organisation which originally grew out of trade unionism and democratic socialism which stood in staunch opposition to capitalism and private profits.
Martin Abrams, committee member of left-wing Labour faction Momentum, said that “hearts [sank]” when the Labour leader mentioned collaboration with the private sector, whilst former Home Secretary Diane Abbott labelled the plans to take back control as an “empty promise” with no mention of new funding being allocated to the scheme.
Should Starmer’s Labour Party triumph in the next general election, scheduled for 2024, he may well face a rebellion on this issue unless he can unit the party behind a clarified devolution package.
With it looking increasingly likely that his party will provide a strong challenge to the current Conservative government, Starmer will need to work these details out sooner rather than later.
Cover image available from The Guardian
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