Cllr Jonathan Glanz is a member of Westminster City Council.
Since the devolution revolution under the Blair government that gave Scotland its Parliament, Wales an Assembly, and London an elected Mayor, the politics of localism has been increasingly fashionable in the UK. But with a new wave of elected mayors due in 2017, are we at risk of locking communities behind a wall of socialism?
Constituents and businesses in my West End ward benefit from a Conservative Council and Conservative Government, but filling in that democratic sandwich is now, sadly, a Labour Mayor of London. A Labour Mayor who does not understand the unique needs of the West End. With the wave of new mayors due to be elected in city regions across the country next May, more Conservative voting communities face the prospect of a layer of super-regional Labour government that neither understands them, nor wants to.
From 2017, Mayors will run Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, the North East, the Sheffield City Region, Tees Valley, the West Midlands and the North Midlands all with control over policing, planning, housing, transport, and elements of the NHS. Even with our current strong position in the opinion polls, and recent research suggesting Labour is losing its traditional grip on city conurbations, the reality remains that City Deals and the new mayoralties they bring with them risk locking millions of people further away from the benefits of Conservative government.
It is perhaps therefore understandable that Theresa May is less than warm to this vision of devolution. She is right to be.
Labour is already eyeing up the new mayoralties as a way back to power, capitalising on their position in London to use local power bases to “protect” their community from the “cuts and austerity” of “Westminster Tories”. The narrative is an easy one to paint – however farcical – with increasing distrust of Westminster politics and a perception of inequality between London and the rest of the country.
As a Party we not only need to fight this false narrative by trumpeting the achievements of our Conservative Government – such as employment growth that is fastest in the North East – but we must also establish a long-term plan that does not simply push power down into the hands of the left and create a platform for our opponents to undermine our support. Think of places like Trafford, where we have built a solid base and fought off Labour’s repeated challenge, thanks to bold leadership – soon to be subject to the whims of Andy Burnham on transport, planning and policing.
As I argued on this site after the general election, in cities where we face a mayoral test, as a Party, we need a plan that delivers real devolution internally to match the devolution of power electorally.
Sadly, such a plan seems distinctly lacking. While Labour is racing ahead with candidate selections for these Mayoralties, we have delayed our selection in Greater Manchester and will just squeak through the selection of a West Midlands candidate in time for them to take to stage on the opening day of Conference. This perceived lack of enthusiasm and failure to prioritise the new Mayoralties is detrimental not only to our Party, but to the communities on which we have bestowed them.
Make no mistake, as London has shown, having a powerful mayor who has clout both in Parliament and in their city has a proven ability to transform a region’s prospects. This is something we, as Conservatives, should embrace. But creating these new roles is not the solution to spreading wealth and growth across the country in itself.
Having given her backing to the Northern Powerhouse and praised the City Deal that will see the Sheffield region elect a new Mayor in May, the task in hand for the Prime Minister is not to slam on the brakes and leave a handful of cities to their own fate, but to redouble the efforts to devolve power and for the new Party chairman to structure the Party to achieve this goal.
Of course, you could argue that another layer of Labour government gives communities greater control and Labour more accountability over the communities they have served – and in many cases failed – for generations. In doing so people will eventually tire of Labour failure and turn, as they always do, to the Conservative Party to clean up the mess. But just look at what has happened in Wales; decades of economic underperformance has deepened under the Labour administration in the Welsh Assembly, with schools performing worse and NHS waiting lists longer than their English counterparts. However, Wales continues to return a Labour administration at every election.
In failing to connect with the communities they govern, these devolved layers of government have been given too much power without true accountability. Where failure has left communities behind it is too easy for devolved administrations to blame the nasty Tory government and the Westminster elite, and in the same tune take every ounce of credit for any marginal success. If we are to continue with a plan for devolution – which has many great merits – we must equally plan for holding a new raft of Labour mayors to account and give every community the opportunity to thrive under a Conservative government. If we are to reshape power by devolving government, we must also reshape and devolve our Party.