A funny thing is happening in England, which most of us are yet to properly pay attention to. While on the national stage the left focuses on the excesses and oddities of Corbynism, and the Dear Leader’s battle to take over all of his Party’s institutions, and the right hammers away on the EU referendum, the cities and the shires are experiencing a constitutional and organisational shake-up bigger than anything seen in decades.
Much of this is the Chancellor’s work. The creation of Combined Authorities and sub-regional mayors, which began with ‘Devo Manc’ and is now extending to numerous other areas, is a huge change in how England will run herself. The traditional, over-centralised model of the state is being chipped away, as Business Rates, health budgets, transport and other functions are passed down from Westminster to a level somewhere between the County Councils and the rejected Regional Assemblies.
The fact that most of the political establishment, and the media which follow it, are distracted by other things could prove to be a double-edged sword. For Osborne, it’s been a boon, as he has been able to rush ahead with a reform that could easily have got bogged down if it met strong scrutiny and dedicated opposition. The result of that relatively easy transition is that many of those who will live under and experience this new system are as yet unaware either that it is happening or what the consequences could be for their own lives. More narrowly, some of those Conservatives who successfully run their own district councils and long opposed Prescott’s regionalism are now alarmed at the prospect of being over-ruled by and outvoted in a sub-regional body, pressed on them by a Government of their own Party.
At some point after these new powers and positions come into affect, we should expect a backlash of some sort. I’ve written before about the persistent popular dislike of the idea of a “postcode lottery” in public services – and as I noted then, it’s the “lottery” element (by which people are allocated a standard of service rather than choosing it for themselves) which is really objectionable, not the “postcode” element (as services really ought to vary based on local needs and demands). These devolution plans clearly have the potential to offer local variation in services without the unaccountable, uncorrectable nature of a lottery – indeed, voters will be able to pick and then sack the people in charge of more local decisions, which is highly desirable.
But when one area does things well and another area messes up, I fully expect that some will cry “postcode lottery” and demand that central government steps in to correct – or, worse, bail out – the poor decisions of a particular Mayor. That moment will be an essential test of the ministerial commitment to the policy. If it’s all just for show, they will wade into local rows and intervene to protect cities and sub-regions from the errors of the leaders whom they chose. If, however, they really mean this new devolution to be permanent, the answer must instead be clear: if you vote for a Mayor who promised you bad ideas (a Corbynite commitment to high spending, endless borrowing and rinsing business, for example) then instead of complaining when those ideas turn out to be a failure, learn from it and elect someone better next time. As ever in politics, delivering a difficult truth to the electorate is never hugely appealing to any politician – but if this idea is to work then it must be done.
Interestingly, we can already see these new layers of Government changing the way our national politics works, even before they have opened their doors. Younger, relatively sensible Labour MPs, who want to do something with the next ten years of their lives other than kowtow to Seumas Milne and pray by their bedside that Momentum don’t deselect them, are looking for ways out of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Some will no doubt have considered a move to the large pay packets and comfortable chairs of boardroom life, but most would prefer something that allows them to maintain a political career – and an associated chance of returning to the Commons – without having to answer to the hard left faction which now runs the Labour Party. In that situation, a shiny new hat labelled “Mayor” looks rather attractive. Sadiq Khan has already made his escape, and gained political standing by doing so. Andy Burnham is now running for Mayor of Greater Manchester. Luciana Berger is reportedly interested in a similar role for Liverpool.
In short, the new city mayoralties may act as the planet Hoth for Labour’s Rebel Alliance – a safe haven to hide out, regroup and plan their next steps while the hard-left Emperor continues with his grand, destructive project. The Corbynite storm troopers may yet try to take them out and install their own mayoral candidates, but this is the best chance for someone like Burnham to control his own destiny and perhaps return one day.
For the Labour leadership, these posts are therefore a challenge. Osborne delighted in striking the Devo Manc deal with willing Labour council leaders even as Miliband and, indeed, one Andy Burnham opposed it nationally. No doubt he will be on the hunt for new opportunities to divide the Opposition’s local leaders from their Party HQ – if he finds any, he will be sure to use them for as much devilment as possible. Non-Corbynite Labour mayors would similarly love an opportunity to drive home the message that they are interested in practical improvements to people’s lives rather than the musty strictures of Little Red Books.
The impact on the Conservative Party is harder to foresee. In the short term, it will be harder to find many Tory areas which have a sufficiently strong shared identity to support a viable mayoral system. Labour cities are by their nature more compact and cohesive than wide Tory counties – the Government will be wary of a rural mayor suffering the same issues as some of the Police and Crime Commissioners, who represent an administrative zone rather than an area which culturally and politically identifies as one.
In the medium to long term, the hope is that this will be a process that changes voters as much as it changes the nature of local government – if it’s done properly, and local electorates have to face up to the failures and bear the costs of left-wing mayors, in some places they may begin to reconsider whether they can believe the moon-on-a-stick promises of socialism. The London mayoralty gave Conservatives a much bigger look-in in the capital than many expected – perhaps such a system will one day do the same elsewhere.