The future’s bright – the future’s local.
By Martin Kerin.
NATIONALLY, the Labour Party is split and is in crisis – this is beyond dispute. What is disputed is the extent of the split and crisis. As bad as 1983? Definitely. As bad as 1931? Maybe. However, there is hope…
The hope for the Party nationally, will come from how the Party performs locally. I speak, of course, of the recent developments with devolution to the English regions. Devolution to the UK nations was one of the crowning achievements of the last Labour government. In time, devolution to the English regions (most prominently in the idea of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’) will be seen as an achievement of George Osborne that will form part of what all politicians crave: a legacy.
Labour needs to embrace the potential of this devolution, and not make the same mistake that it did in Scotland. There are of, course, many reasons for the Party’s current peril north of the border. One of the reasons is, though, how Labour understood – or, you could say, misunderstood – the potential of devolution. After the untimely death of the inaugural First Minister, the Pater Patriae of modern Scotland, Donald Dewer, no other Labour politician in the Scottish Parliament was ever able to match his stature. The self-inflicted wound here is that there were Scottish politicians who could have stepped up, but didn’t. Whilst politicians such as Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Alistair Darling, John Reid and George Robertson focussed on Westminster, the likes of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon were elected to the first ever Scottish Parliament; the rest, as they say, is history.
In terms of embracing this new round of devolution, the early signs are good. Andy Burnham, the prospective candidate for the new Greater Manchester Mayoralty, campaigned on the slogan that it was ‘a cabinet-level job, which requires cabinet-level experience.’ He is absolutely right about the scale and potential of the new role. To have someone of his profile, experience and potential as Labour’s candidate shows two things: (1) the Party is embracing devolution and learning the lessons from Scotland (2) there is now an alternative career path, away from Westminster, for ambitious and able politicians who want to make a difference to their communities.
Mr Burnham said: ‘this idea that Westminster is the be all and end all is dysfunctional.’ These words are backed up by some of the other choices of Labour candidates for the new metro mayors: Steve Rotherham, Liverpool’s pick, plied his trade as a local councillor, before becoming an MP, and is now returning to serve locally; Sion Simon, the West Midlands choice, originally left Westminster in order to campaign for the creation of the role in the first place. You only have to look at Sadiq Khan to see what embracing devolution can do – he has moved from a 25,263 strong mandate from the people of Tooting as member of the House of Commons to a whopping 1,148,716 strong mandate from the people of London as a whole, as the directly elected Mayor of London
Within our local borough of Thurrock, Labour used its recent time in office to show what a Party can do locally, in contrast to how the Party is performing nationally. In 2010, Labour lost the general election because it wasn’t trusted on the economy. Between then and 2015, this nagging doubt about financial competence hung like a millstone around the necks of Messrs Miliband and Balls. Yet, paradoxically, in the same period of time, Cllr John Kent and the Labour Group took control of the Council, competently managed the finances against the backdrop of stringent central government cuts, built up the reserves and maintained a low level of council tax. Of course, recent local election results haven’t been kind to the Party, but, despite this, there is no doubt that, in Thurrock at least, Labour has a reputation for assured financial management.
I alluded, earlier, to 1931. This is because it was the worst crisis in Labour’s history – it also was the beginning (although no one saw at the time!) of a series of events that led to the first-ever Labour majority government, by a landslide. In the general election of 1931, Labour lost 225 seats and was reduced to a rump of 52. For the Party to survive there was only one possible course of action to take: build locally. The Party set about building up through local government, and, eventually took the biggest prize of them all: London County Council, under the local leadership of Cllr Herbert Morrison. A year later, a certain individual named Clement Attlee MP was elected leader of the Party nationally. Despite losing the 1935 general election, Labour gained 102 seats in four years. Ten years later, at the conclusion of the Second World War, Labour won by a majority of 145 seats, with Mr Attlee as the first Labour prime minster to enjoy a parliamentary majority.
One of the most fabled moments in the Party’ path to electability in the late 80’s – early 90’s was the rewriting of Clause IV of the constitution – the so-called ‘Clause IV moment.’ Fast-forward to 2016: Labour needs its ‘Clause IV moment’ for today. Starting at the very beginning of the constitution, we need to look at Clause I, rather than Clause IV of the constitution. Clause I is, in my opinion, the definitive clause – it commits the Party to being a party of government. It states that:
‘Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.’
We need to enshrine our commitment to devolution and local government into our constitution with an explicit and obvious insertion into a new Clause I:
‘Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament, the Devolved Institutions and in the country a political Labour Party.’
Adding the simple words ‘Devolved Institutions’ into Clause I would say, for the first time, that the Party treats the Devolved Institutions of the United Kingdom with the same seriousness and commitment as it does Parliament. If it does this, and builds on the potential offered by devolution, it can show that the future is, indeed, bright – the future is local.