When one looks at the current Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and its leadership, it is hard to escape the impression of a collective without principles, interested only in political power and in concealing as much as possible what they actually stand for so as not to annoy any powerful interest or to provoke controversy. A good example of this is Keir Starmer’s recent speech in London, where he talked about devolving power to localities and regions.
“We will spread control out of Westminster. Devolve new powers over employment support, transport, energy, climate change, housing, culture, childcare provision and how councils run their finances.”
Unfortunately, he failed to provide any detail as to what these powers were going to be, nor how councils could access the resources to exercise them. Apart from this:
“But let me be clear – none of this should be taken as code for Labour getting its big government cheque-book out. Of course investment is required – I can see the damage the Tories have done to our public services as plainly as anyone else. But we won’t be able to spend our way out of their mess – it’s not as simple as that.”
In other words, the cupboard will remain bare under Labour.
Throughout Starmer’s speech he failed to say anything about the performance of existing Labour local governments, there is no mention for example of job creation in the North East (Labour leader Jamie Driscoll, a member of Momentum),
nor of Greater Manchester’s bus fare cap (later emulated on a temporary basis at national level) (leader Andy Burnham, a potential Labour national leader). See
He could have mentioned the introduction of free prescriptions, free school breakfasts and the abolition of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) in Wales (leader Mark Drakeford, a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn). See
He mentioned none of these local and regional successes that Labour, with very constrained resources, has achieved for working people under a Tory national government. This is not surprising, he has good reason to fear effective leadership and radical but practical politics from potential rivals. He did not say how he would help these successful Labour authorities to flourish in partnership with a Labour government beyond issuing vague promises.
Although these Labour councils have achieved much, they can only achieve more if they are supported by central government with appropriate resources. And on this point, Starmer says ‘no’. In order to enable councils to improve the lives of their inhabitants some changes need to be made at national level as well and these will cost money. The government needs to introduce legislation to make the franchising of bus services a default option rather than the eventual result of a tortuous and litigious battle with bus companies and then to provide the resources to cap fares and restore routes and frequencies. It needs to alter the articles of governance for further education colleges so that they cease to compete as businesses and start to act as engines for the development of know-how in their regions. This means putting local authorities in a powerful position on the governing bodies of colleges so that they can co-ordinate provision across their regions. But so that such changes are effective, Labour needs to invest in FE colleges and to ensure that salaries are good enough to attract experts from industry as teachers. Although improvements in transport and vocational education (both for young people and the existing workforce) are necessary conditions for economic revival, they will not be sufficient if, for example, housing and health provision are not attended to as well. Labour’s closed chequebook will ensure that nothing much is done.
This journal has argued for some time that providing money for investment is not a problem for a sovereign currency issuing state like the United Kingdom. People have been so cowed by the prevalent ‘where will the money come from?’ rhetoric that they find it hard to believe that resources for improving their lives could be made available. The national bank account is not the issue, but providing the resources is. People will understand very well that not all change can take place overnight, but they are quite entitled to expect to see some improvement within a couple of years of an incoming Labour government taking office. Improvements in local transport and skills creation could be such an area of improvement, with the promise of more in the medium term. Then they can understand the power of the state to deploy resources in a careful and measured way to improve their lives. If Labour is serious about devolution they could also make it possible for councils to issue investment bonds backed by a government guarantee to support the projects that voters wish to see in their own areas at low interest rates.
We suspect that Starmer is actually afraid of greater local autonomy as this will simply highlight how ineffective he and his PLP are. The ‘Take Back Control’ rhetoric is a smokescreen that hides the reality.