For the first time in a while, Blairite MP said something that isn’t totally inane. Today Tristram Hunt, an MP on the Labour Party’s neoliberal wing (which incidentally shouldn’t exist), said that the Labour Party needs to reclaim the mantle of devolution from the Tories. Devolution is an issue that re-entered the public consciousness following the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, and the Tories seized upon it by promising a whole new constitutional settlement. Labour delivered devolution under Tony Blair, and they need to relate this approach to socialist principles in order to get the party united behind this concept.
Hunt’s comments were delivered in a speech in Manchester about the need for Labour to “draw on our proud heritage of municipal socialism” and bring in a “new era of civic provision for our essential services”. He went on to argue that 235 cities around the world have taken control of services including water and sanitation due to dissatisfaction with private sector providers. According to Hunt the devolution of powers to city regions would enable the local authorities to take over services from private contractors without the interference of Westminster. I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but I agree with Tristram Hunt.
Power in the UK is far too centralised, but it is important to not speak about this issue in a two-dimensional way. Devolution under Tony Blair and under David Cameron has been transferring power away from one place and then concentrating it in another place. For example the ‘Devo Manc’, the proposal to devolve powers over health and the economy to Manchester, is transferring power from London to Manchester and while this is a form of devolution it does not go far enough.
Devolution needs to bring power to people’s communities, not simply establish a new central authority somewhere outside of London. Decision-making needs to be radically decentralised so that there is no centre of power in any one place. Sticking with the Manchester example, there is no point establishing Manchester City Council as a Whitehall-style bureaucratic behemoth as this would pay lip-service to the idea of people controlling their own communities. In an ideal world the power structure of the British state would be radically altered so that local communities and neighbourhoods would have control over as much as possible and then local councils would deal with any overlapping concerns and so on.
Devolution won’t be ‘solved’ as an issue if Holyrood, Cardiff Bay, and Manchester are given more powers and Labour needs to make this case. There is nothing inherently left-wing about centralising power in the hands of a few ministers. Centralised leftism was a leitmotif of the twentieth-century and that has shown to ultimately fail. For socialism to be adopted by a population, people need to empowered to make decisions relating to their own lives and their communities. We often focus on the need to bring in workplace democracy because this is the most obvious example where workers are excluded from influence.
Government also needs to work for many and not the few. Giving people influence over their local communities will enable socialism to grow more organically and will prevent politicians in Westminster from destroying communities on a whim. Would Thatcher be able to devastate Northern towns and cities if most political decision-making was in the hands of those who lived there? Of course not. Devolution is good on a practical level, but also on an ideological one. If people in the South East of England want to cut services and privatise their council housing, I would disagree but that’s democracy, but there is no reason that Tory politicians in London should impose this warped view of politics and economics parts of the UK without their consent.