Two of the central failings of the New Labour area were to do with the centre. The first was an obsessive desire to bring all political beliefs, and therefore all policy decision, to 'the centre'. This was a decision taken for reasons of electoral opportunism, as a big-tent style of politics, encompassing the 'centre', centre-left, and centre-right, was reasoned to be New Labour's best way of winning power for consecutive terms. It worked - three thumping victories - but it also meant that New Labour never developed for itself a coherent and identifiable political philosophy. I recently read two histories of New Labour by Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley, 'Servants of the People' and 'The End of the Party'. In both volumes, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were shown to be confused as to their priorities and direction when they entered No. 10 in 1997 and 2007 respectively. This is because their desire for electoral width simultaneously triggered an ideological shallowness. Trying to appeal to everyman - this imagined, idealised centre - hadn't triggered a raft of unified policies and policy theories. Instead, there was an emptiness that undermined both men and their governments. The second centre issue for New Labour was one of centralisation, and bringing power back to central government. Those thirteen years in power, for many, represent the disenfranchisement of local government in favour of the Westminster machine. This problem was at its most severe in England. While Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland saw devolution and national assemblies, England was dominated by London, and saw most major decisions taken with little concern for local communities and the differing needs of the regions.
This issue of centralisation, and the problems that occur from it, still dog Labour to this day. People in the UK - England especially - don't like the idea of diktats coming from on high, and they don't think that the best decisions for them are necessarily those that are made by politicians who they see as distant and unrepresentative. Westminster is disparaged, Brussels even more so. The public don't see politics as understanding, or relevant, when the decisions that matter are made with little knowledge of the people they will come to affect.
These concerns have been addressed most vocally by Michael Heseltine, who's long had his finger on the pulse on this issue and has frequently criticised the concentration of power in Whitehall. As he stated in his recent report on growth, 'With central government reserving for itself the power to make the vast majority of economic decisions...local authorities have been relegated to service providers...The local economic leadership that drove the UK to the forefront of the world economy has disappeared.' Lord Heseltine's conclusions are correct - his problem is that a Conservative government is not in the business of giving away power, like most governments.
The distinction that many politicians fail to recognise is that power for its own sake is destructive and cannot be self-perpetuating. Labour's attempts to pool power within the central state saw them lose votes at local elections, lose councillors, lose control of local authorities, before finally losing in the 2010 election. The Conservatives may start to see that process repeating in this year's local elections this May. While centralised political control is tempting, in a Stalinist sort of way, in the long-term it is the relinquishing of certain powers to local governments that can help to drive growth and improve our communities. This in turn will fashion an upswing in popularity for any party that cares to take such measures.
This brings us back to May's local elections. They are concentrated heavily in Conservative areas, and the Tories are expected to lose a good chunk of seats, with Labour and UKIP making the largest gains. If Ed Miliband wants Labour to make a real charge towards power, he has to start in these smaller, less glamorous, but critical polls. It's victories at a local level that start a drive towards national government, and if Miliband started to prioritise the local over the national, he could be at the forefront of a new movement that helped fix the economic problems in different communities, bridge the North-South divide and make some of that 'One Nation' rhetoric into a reality. There are some signs that the importance of local government is starting to register in the minds of Labour. Their May campaign, for example, promises to give local authorities the power to clamp down on payday lenders, and Miliband has also spoken about creating a German-style network of regional banks. This is a good start, but he must elaborate, and lay down some detail, if he's to really light a spark. The empowerment of communities at a local level - Heseltine syndrome - is what the people want, and it's what the deprived communities in the Midlands and the North truly need. Let's hope this particular political virus is contagious.