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The Labour Party Must Go Further and Faster Than the Tories on Devolution

18/04/2016 08:30

The historic mission of the Labour Party is a simple one: to make sure that - whatever your background - you have the opportunity to get on in life. Yet in the run up to the last election we failed to explain to voters how we could make that mission a reality - especially in this post-crash era of tight public finances. But I believe at least part of the answer to building a less divided Britain relies on boosting civic activism and unleashing local pride. And that means giving power away from Westminster.

Because, more than ever, people want a say. People want a stake. People want to participate. People want power. But more than that, all of the evidence shows how local government is more responsive, accountable, trusted, knowledgeable, and innovative than Westminster when it comes to making difficult decisions in the community interest.

And if you look around the country you see examples of Labour politicians delivering on our historic mission, and improving the lives of countless people in the process. In Oldham, the Youth Guarantee makes sure every 18 year old has a place in either education or training. In Leeds, the council is taking advantage of right to buy legislation to buy back council homes and dramatically increase the city's affordable housing stock. And in Coventry, the council has backed a £50m investment fund to help support entrepreneurs and grow small businesses.

But, despite leading the way on devolution during much of the last Parliament, somehow we still allowed the Tories to steal a march on us when they announced that first Manchester devolution deal. And, as a result, we let Labour look like the party that wanted to keep power in the centre rather than letting our communities decide what's best for them.

I believe the time for equivocation is over. Yes, the Tories' approach to negotiating devolution deals is secretive, haphazard and controlling. But while we must never shy away from exposing the flaws in the process, nor can we be lukewarm about the principle.

Because the needs of my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent are different to the needs of the voters in Stoke Newington. And local communities and local politicians will understand those different needs far better than bureaucrats in London.

So I believe we must go further and faster than the Tories on devolution. And one area we cannot afford to ignore is public services. The academic research on decentralisation is clear about the ability of local authorities to deliver public services more effectively than the central state.

Local bodies have greater capacity to 'join-up' public services beyond departmental silos, giving them a crucial innovative edge when it comes to tackling the complexities of modern social injustice. Without effective early years education, pre-natal classes, maternal health and wellbeing support, Sure Start centres, we are not giving every child an equal chance at success. And without effective, localised welfare to work programmes the scars of long-term unemployment and economic inequality will only deepen.

So we must go beyond the Government's piecemeal approach and look at devolving powers to redesign services in welfare, health, social care and schools. We need to rip down the ring fences. Move towards long budget cycles, unconstrained by departmental bickering. Finally we need to scorch the silos. People's lives do not fit neatly inside them, and it is increasingly outdated to think our social justice ambitions ever could.

Giving away power can help us reduce inequality in a material sense as well as starting to heal the ties of social obligation towards one another that inequality has begun to fray. And that is the moral mission the Labour Party must now return to.

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