What role does London play in Labour’s democracy and decentralization document?
The report has good points, but downplays both the national benefits of the capital’s economic strength and the difficulties in dismantling its dominance
Anyone in favor of shifting power from Whitehall and making the UK more independent from the London economy will find something to interest them in Labor’s report on constitutional amendments published today.
Recommendations include granting more financial security and tax collection powers to local authorities, “empowering mayors” and a relationship between central and local and regional government defined by “as much autonomy as possible, as much cooperation as necessary”. is. But what could all this lead to? And where would London fit in in the event of a future Labor government?
The document, which bears the Blairist title A New Britain: Renewing our Democracy and Rebuilding our Economy and was compiled by a commission led by Gordon Brown, is 150 pages long and mentions London almost 100 times. Still, it’s tiptoeing around thorny and crucial questions about London’s relationship with the rest of the country and how that could be changed without doing more harm than good.
Regrettably, even when it comes to both ‘the South’ and ‘the North’ losing out to ‘an unbalanced economy’, it recycles some of the old grievances of the North that Conservative and some Labor politicians have been all too keen of late have become prominent, as have certain news organizations and think tanks. It’s no surprise to find IPPR North prominent in the acknowledgments section.
London and the South East “have twice the average UK infrastructure spend per capita”, explains the report, frustratingly ignoring key factors such as higher property prices and labor costs in London and, when it comes to transport, employing the misleading old favorite “per capita” – If you calculate “per person trip”, you would get a completely different answer – certainly in relation to the capital, where the subways have been operating since 1973.
Halfway through, the report plays Crossrail’s ‘it’s not fair’ card, claiming that the Elizabeth Line’s price of nearly £20bn is collected directly in London and that much of the national government’s contribution comes from primarily taxes levied in London.
Some of the report’s other recommendations have a familiar, audience-catching quality that sidesteps lessons from post-war and recent history. Recommendation 11 says that 50,000 civil service jobs – far more than the 20,000 the Tories are aiming for – and more headquarters of public bodies should be moved out of London, recalling Harold Wilson’s 1964 pledge to end “southward migration”. by doing a lot for the same thing.
The drift has not been halted, of course, and as Rishi Sunak’s Darlington Treasury Campus might show, the main effect of relocating central government departments (which remain responsible for implementing highly centralized central government policies) can be to drain the local private sector of staff , rather than helping ‘move up’ and perversely using London-based companies, as civil servants who don’t want to migrate seek jobs at London-based companies instead.
It is at least partially recognized that not everyone in London is filthy rich. Turning to wages, the Commission report blithely states at one point that “wages in London are 30% higher than anywhere else in the country”, obscuring the capital’s nationally leading poverty rates and the shocking fact that, as Trust for London has shown, more than half of London’s poor households have people working, but elsewhere it is at least recognized that London’s high housing costs mean that disposable income here and further south is “about the same” as in the north east.
The general principles of devolving powers to municipalities and city-regions are much more acceptable – had Recommendation 3 for a “constitutional requirement that the political, administrative and financial autonomy of local government be respected by central government” been in force in 2020 The The local authority known as Transport for London might have been spared the damaging and petty Whitehall micromanagement imposed by Boris Johnson’s government.
However, links are missing when it comes to ridding the UK of its over-centralized government and over-reliance on the London economy and shaping a nation where power is more decentralized and broad regional economic disparities are reduced.
The report slams the Treasury Department’s “Green Book”, the City of London’s investment strategies and national governments’ investment priorities for research and development, saying they all cover London, the South East and the “Golden Triangle” (London, Oxford and Cambridge) unfairly prefer, and even points out why that might be the case – because investing in London and the wider South East is demonstrably safer to achieve desired returns.
Less to say are the proceeds from these approaches to funding the rest of the UK, or the counterproductive risks involved in trying to help other regions at London’s expense. It’s not popular to say that London’s economic strength is vital to the nation as a whole, but like it or not, it’s the truth. As things stand, a flagging London will be flagging everywhere else. This is the stubborn, self-perpetuating circle that any ‘leveling’ agenda, including Labour’s alternatives, must traverse.
We have to admit that the report’s political background is tricky: ‘North London’ Conservative stumbles on Keir Starmer are as boring as they are cheap, but rebuilding the former ‘red wall’ is crucial to Labour’s chances of winning the still-big Tory to overthrow majority in 2024. To steal what Roy Jenkins said about Tony Blair’s exit in the run-up to the 1997 general election, Starmer, who is miles ahead in the polls but still has a long way to go, will have to reclaim his Ming Vase carrying victory over a highly polished base.
Being seen as nice to London could help his opponents slip him, as could too direct a reference to seeking closer ties with Europe. Starmer’s Labor may understand London’s economic importance but think it wise not to say so. However, you can bet the Treasury Department understands – the Treasury Department that Gordon Brown used to be in charge of.
Image from the cover of the report.
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