Published on 11 December 2023
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The Labour Party and the politics of devolution

The Labour Party has made enhancing economic growth its primary goal. But existing and emerging tensions will need to be navigated if Labour and Metro Mayors are to work together to achieve this shared goal, write Jack Shaw and Patrick Diamond.

In this year’s conference speech, Keir Starmer again reiterated that devolution would be a major priority if the Labour Party wins the next General Election. In what would amount to ‘the biggest expansion of devolution since Labour was last in power’ according to the Guardian, Starmer told delegates: “If we want to challenge the hoarding of potential in our economy then we must win the war against the hoarders in Westminster. Give power back and put communities in control”.

We are told that a Starmer-led government would give combined authorities additional control over housing, planning, skills, transport and energy. Further powers would be devolved if combined authorities that demonstrate prudent management of public money requested them: a similar approach was taken with local councils by the last Labour government, enshrined in the Sustainable Communities Act (2007). The main rationale for this ‘turn’ towards devolution is giving places the levers to drive economic growth, especially in parts of the England that have historically experienced deindustrialisation and stubbornly low productivity.

Yet while many in Labour understandably consider improving the long-term performance of the economy as their main objective, the capacity of a Labour-run Government to improve growth will be contingent on circumstances largely outside its direct control – not least the state of the global economy and the impact of ongoing geopolitical shocks. In contrast, by forging a political project of radical English devolution, Labour has the opportunity to shape a long-lasting institutional settlement that will potentially outlive it, just as the Attlee Government did with the welfare state after 1945.

Devolution could have been a major legacy of New Labour’s, yet while Blair’s constitutional reforms initiated a transformation of the UK polity, asymmetric devolution arrangements bred resentment in England that Ministers were slow to address. There were major disagreements within Labour about spatial policy, in particular whether powers across England should be devolved to larger regional bodies or to city-regions. The tensions inherent in English devolution remain unresolved and devolving power will not be straightforward.

For one, the Labour Party has ingrained centralising tendencies that have long influenced the British socialist tradition. In articulating the rationale for New Labour’s reforms immediately before the 1997 election, Tony Blair insisted that the new Scottish Parliament’s powers would be confined to little more than a ‘parish council’. The emphasis was on Westminster retaining its sovereignty, with devolved institutions confined to running local services. New Labour was similarly reluctant to countenance regional assemblies and Blair was visibly relieved when John Prescott’s referendum in North East England did not receive enough support in 2004. A centralist mind-set appeals to some figures on the Left who fear that the decentralisation of power will exacerbate inequality, introduce ‘postcode lotteries’ and – given asymmetries are common across developed economies that have pursued decentralisation – undermine a Labour Government’s ability to deliver on new policies England-wide.

Devolution also poses dilemmas for the political strategy of the Labour leadership. For example, what approach will Starmer adopt when metro mayors pursue policies that he fears may damage Labour’s national image? The Mayor of London’s decision to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone, which is widely believed to have cost Labour votes in the Uxbridge by-election, is notable. And while Labour cannot expect mayors to abide by Westminster’s ‘message discipline’ or its whipping system, how will Labour accommodate high profile figures adopting different stances to the Labour Party nationally, such as the Mayor of Greater Manchester’s support for a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel?

How Labour responds to Gordon Brown’s recent Commission on the UK’s Future also raises tensions since there are contested interpretations of how far Labour should pursue Brown’s recommendations. The former Prime Minister recognises the potential contribution of city-region mayors to reformed English governance. His Commission seeks to formalise their role in Westminster through reform of the House of Lords, giving mayors a voice in the national legislature. Yet there are some in Labour who fear that role will be diluted – and for that reason the fiercest opposition to devolution in Westminster has often come from Members of Parliament. Moreover, the devolution deals that have not yet been struck are likely to lead to the creation of more Conservative mayoralties (‘red dots in a sea of blue’). If a respected mayor with a high profile is an electoral asset, the creation of new Conservative mayoralties will be unattractive to some Labour figures. In that context, Labour will need a clear understanding of how devolution enables it to deliver on its priorities – and communicate that to the public – as well as marshal its own Members of Parliament to support devolution reforms.

Labour at the centre appears increasingly to understand this, with reports of a growing rapprochement between Labour and its mayors, particularly Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan. There is an emerging recognition that if it wins power, Labour will be required to manage multiple centres of power in a way it has never done before. These questions have rarely been asked by the Conservatives, given they only have two Mayors – the West Midlands’ Andy Street and Tees Valley’s Ben Houchen – yet the challenge is not exclusive to Labour. It is difficult to envisage that a backbench Member of Parliament would be able to negotiate concessions from the Prime Minister in a way that the Mayor of the West Midlands did when it came to recent rows over HS2.

Tensions will need to be managed given that Labour needs Mayors to help deliver its five national ‘missions’. This is a central challenge that the Conservatives have been unable to grasp thus far: despite its enthusiasm for devolution since the 2019 General Election, the current Government’s actions have not translated into tangible change on the ground, in part because too much activity at the centre is unstrategic, developed in isolation without an adequate understanding of local practice and not joined up with other public and private investment.

In addressing these challenges, Labour needs to acknowledge that governing requires mobilising a coalition of actors whose actions Labour does not directly control. The missions spelt out in Labour’s nascent election manifesto require the support of sub-regional actors, notably city-region mayors. An incoming Labour government will have to develop new structures and institutions that can both mobilise a coalition at local, regional and national level to enact the party’s programme, as well as resolve conflicts that inevitably arise between different tiers of government in a ‘multi-level polity’.

If it stops short of wholescale reform of the Lords, as has been suggested, Labour should explore alternatives to embed Mayors into the political and policymaking process in order to avoid errors made by the Conservatives. In doing so, Labour should also consider the parity of esteem between Mayors and local government given local authorities currently have a representative in the Shadow Cabinet.

Past experience indicates that the politics of English devolution will be far from straightforward. The potential for Labour to leave a lasting legacy of effective and more responsive English governance is significant  – but it will need to tread carefully if in power.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.


Jack Shaw

Affiliated Researcher

Jack Shaw is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Mile End Institute and an Affiliated Researcher at the Bennett Institute for Public Policy. He works across regional economic policy, devolution...

Patrick Diamond

Patrick Diamond is Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary University and Director of the Mile End Institute.

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