To begin with, a vignette of modern family life:
The kids are old enough to stay with relatives for a few days, so Mum and Dad head off somewhere nice for a well-earned break. Parental relief is tinged with a bit of guilt, but when they return they find that their children haven’t missed them at all. In fact, the little horrors have had a brilliant time – playing all day, roaming around unsupervised and staying up way past their bedtime!
“Don’t get used to it,” says Dad. “You’re back home now and don’t you forget it,” says Mum.
Something analogous could await our cities if Labour returns to power. For the last five years, the likes of Manchester and Liverpool have enjoyed more control over their affairs than at any point in living memory. As I’ve argued before on the Deep End, the decentralisation of political power is one of the Coalition’s most important, but least recognised, achievements.
Fortunately, there are those on the Labour side who recognise the significance of what’s been going on. One of them is Michael Taylor, the party’s candidate in Hazel Grove. Writing for the Guardian, he wonders why more people haven’t noticed:
“I missed the party. How was it?
“You know, the one that celebrated the announcement that Greater Manchester’s devolution settlement was edging ever further to bringing local control closer to our needs? The one that toasted how Devo Manc isn’t a sleight of hand, but seems to be bringing real power, real budgets, real control and real autonomy to a city region government, controlled in time by a directly elected Mayor. That party?”
Though some may regard the empowerment of city government as a Tory trick, Taylor reminds his readers that this is a movement with broad-based support:
“…the report that really raised the bar for an audacious devolution settlement was Andrew Adonis’s Growth Review. That was in time trumped by Respublica’s DevoManc project, which the Greater Manchester Combined Authority commissioned, and had a contented seal of approval from the most powerful figures in the city region, the Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Sir Richard Leese, and his head of civil service, Sir Howard Bernstein.”
It would have been nice to credit the Government’s City Deals programme too – which has turned at least some of the talk into action – but, of course, Mr Taylor is a Labour candidate and there is an election on.
Nevertheless, he makes a welcome appeal to his own side to support the general thrust of decentralisation:
“It should be an issue bubbling under this election, something that will inject energy and excitement into public life, in the way the Scots embraced politics last summer. The opportunity not just to elect a new government, but a new way of doing politics closer to where decisions are made.”
Taylor blames any lack of enthusiasm on “cynicism and scepticism.” But might complacency also be a danger? Far from being respected by a new government in London, local Labour leaders in Manchester and other cities may find themselves back on a short leash.
In theory, Ed Miliband’s Labour Party leans further towards localism than the control-freakery of the Blair and Brown era. But whoever forms the next government, we shouldn’t forget that the ‘Whitehall Party’ will remain in place. The centralising instincts of the civil service will prevail unless the right ministers in the right positions fight the good fight.
Though a joint effort, the last five years of progress would not have been made without these ministerial champions. A change of government would mean that they’d be moving on – and unless they’re replaced with new champions, our city leaders could find themselves treated like children again.