Governing for Change — re-thinking Labour’s statecraft
Polls suggest that power might be within Labour’s reach. But where should that power lie, and how should Labour use it?
In this blog John Denham and Jon Wilson argue that Labour needs a radical re-think of its statecraft. Their full paper can be found here.
The combination of Boris Johnson’s remarkable and entirely self-inflicted political disasters and a revitalised Labour front bench have brought about a possibility seemingly unthinkable a few months ago: Labour might actually do well enough to form a government. There is a long way to go, of course. Labour’s lead is not remarkably high compared with other mid-term oppositions who have gone on to lose. Even on current polls, Labour would fall short of an overall UK majority and would be well behind in Scotland.
But even the possibility of power should be enough to make Labour ask profound questions: where should that power lie, and how should it be exercised? Traditionally Labour has not given the question much thought. It bought the idea that to govern meant to win a Westminster election and to run things from Whitehall. New Labour’s devolution was meant to silence nationalists, not fundamentally change the way the UK was governed.
A new government will be anxious to tackle Britain’s many problems: poverty and inequality, failing public services, low productivity, national and regional grievances, and a lack of trust institutions and leadership. The problem is that the union state the new government would inherit is simply unfit for that purpose. The centralised post-war state was, for a time, able to build a British national economy and a welfare state. But it had no response to the tensions and inequalities that grew from the 1960s. From the 1980s, the centralisation of the UK state made it particularly effective in pushing through — with few effective points of opposition — de-industrialisation, financialisation, privatisation and the opening of the economy to globalisation in ways that damaged our own industries. The last Labour government had a real success in rebuilding public services and tackling inequality but was much less effective at restructuring national and regional economies.
There is now a stark mismatch between the working of the centralised union state and needs of a government set on radical reform. This is emphatically not just a question of which party is in power. It is about the structure, culture, organisation and mindset of the central state itself. As the centre concentrates power, local government lacks the capacity, authority and resources to shape local economies and is dependent on ‘deals’ to do the centre’s bidding. There is no settled relationship between the UK government and the devolved nations, either on the extent of their powers or their ability to shape the policy of the union as a whole. England, governed by a mish-mash of English, English and Welsh, and UK wide departments, lacks even the most basic machinery to coordinate national policy.
By contrast, Labour’s success in government will depend on empowered institutions in every part of the UK because both nations and localities must be able to shape their own future. But it will also need effective coordination between those institutions because the great challenges like zero-carbon and the post-Brexit economy will require coherent action at UK, national and local level. Rhetorically, many in Labour might say they agree, but without thinking through the implications.
This requires a radical change in vision. First, Labour needs to recognise the fact that the UK is a union of multiple places and nations, held together by common interest and consent. Second, it needs to recognise the existence of centres of power and authority, each of which have their own forms of democratic legitimacy and accountability. Third, it must also see that central government’s role is to lead, coordinate and broker: not to impose.
Perhaps most important, the recognition of multiple centres of power requires a commitment to pluralist politics. It is inevitable that different parties will hold power in different places. The politics of ‘winner takes all’ must end.
As a party that contests every nation on the island of Britain, Labour needs the consistent union-wide principles of statecraft that it currently lacks. (The language with which it addresses the union, nation and national identity in Scotland, Wales and England is entirely different). The party’s statecraft needs to weave together a politics of place and belonging, the distribution of state power, local and national democracy and its social and economic policy. It has, too, to show respect for the many different levels of belonging that people have: to place, nation and the union as a whole.
A commitment to pluralism is not an end in itself. Our argument here is that pluralism is an essential building block to create a coherent approach to economic and social renewal. As such Labour must foster a flexible and respectful culture of government and, while fighting political contests across Britain, recognise the legitimacy of democratic decisions. None of this prevents the development of a bold and sharply focused union-wide sense of direction. But it needs to emerge by gaining the consent of the constituent parts of the UK, not be imposed based merely on a fragile majority in Westminster.
An incoming government will face a dilemma. The state needs reform from day one, yet the urgency of social and economic problems will not allow an extended period of constitutional reflection. The resolution lies in a process of strategic incrementalism; a series of reforms that enables the UK to move steadily towards something more like a union of nations and devolved localities. Early steps would be to delineate the machinery of English government from that of the Union, to bring the devolved nations and an English Secretary of State into a new Union cabinet, and to speak with a new language that recognises plurality and the need for coordination, not imposition from above. The relations between the nations and union would be set down in a more robust form and intra-government coordination greatly strengthened. In England, where centralisation is most marked, the authority of local government, including its right to draw down devolved powers should be put on a statutory basis; but Labour needs to make a similar argument in Wales and Scotland as well.
The essential financial underpinning of redistribution from the highest revenue generating parts of England must continue but with action to give a fair settlement to those nations and places not well-served by Barnett. Over a longer timescale, a new needs-based UK wide fair funding formula should emerge, with clear, visible rules. As an English machinery of government develops, Westminster should be reformed to allow English MPs only the right to make English laws (the so-called dual-mandate parliament).
We do not underestimate the challenge. The culture and organisation of the centralised union state runs so deep that many working in it simply assume it is the only way the UK can be governed. There will be plenty of advice to new ministers to delay and obfuscate. But if Labour wants to change the UK it must begin by doing things differently from day one of a new government. And to be talking in a different voice long before.