“Devolution is a hot topic,” said Jane Dudman, Guardian Public Leaders editor, who chaired the first of three ERS fringe events at Labour Party Conference 2015. The topic was: “can Labour reclaim devolution and localism?”
Councillor Lewis Herbert, Leader of Cambridge City Council, kicked off discussion. He said that the localism debate could be summaries using five Ps:
Power – which should be devolved not just to town halls but to communities
Principle – requests for devolution should go hand-in-hand with what local authorities will achieve with their increased powers
Pounds – devolved decision-making is neutered without the devolution of spending (Cambridge, for instance, would like to be able to borrow against its £1.4m housing stock to build more social housing)
Process – the way in which ministers and councils develop devolution deals
Partnership – Cambridge has fully involved its universities and local businesses, as well as the neighbouring Conservative-run Cambridgeshire county and district councils
Councillor Herbert said he wanted to see proportional representation, as Labour could make alliances with Liberal Democrats and Greens in areas where they do not win outright control of a council.
Councillor Matt Kerr, Executive Member for Personnel on Glasgow City Council, gave an overview of the adoption of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in Scottish local elections. In Glasgow, for instance, Labour used to have 79 out of 83 Councillors – this is now 44, but Labour still have a majority. It shows that even under STV, if voters want it, popular parties can have overall control of councils.
Voters are getting ‘sharp’ on STV – now they have representatives from multiple parties, they are increasingly calling around councillors until they get solutions. Councillors host more regular surgeries – they both co-operate and compete.
Stephen Kinnock MP, Member for Aberavon, highlighted his publication A New Nation. The pamphlet’s central pitch is that radical economic, social and constitutional reforms are needed to improve the UK’s resilience.
Central government controls the vast majority of public spending – both in absolute terms and compared to elsewhere. This should be resolved, with Her Majesty’s Treasury broken in two – one half working with beefed-up local authorities, the other with central government.
‘Federalism or die’ is his honest assessment on the Union – he advocates an authoritative two-year Constitutional Convention on how this might best be achieved. A new Department should be established – working with First Ministers – to answer the West Lothian Question, amongst others.
There were also some words of advice – the next electoral reform campaign should focus on tangible arguments. Two-party support is in decline, and the pursuit of swing voters in marginal seats results in policy which neglects people living in safe seats.
Catherine West, Member for Hornsey & Wood Green and former Leader of Islington Borough Council, felt House of Lords reform should be top of the constitutional reform agenda. Confidence in the appointments system is low, making a good entry point for reform discussions. Any reform should address the Lords’ regional imbalance.
On localism, councils should be braver in their requests. Hackney has introduced a tourism tax – hotels and other businesses are contributing to a pot for better cleaning, policing and ‘definition of place’. Local authorities should be able to bid for work contracts for services such as mental health or careers advice.
The NHS is an area that could benefit from more devolution. A local model that rewarded keeping people out of hospital through primary care could be nurtured – NHS and local healthcare budgets should be entwined. This is something councillors have long requested, yet these mechanisms still do not exist.
As with our other Labour fringes, a question from the floor made the case for improved citizenship education (many people do not know what their MPs, MSPs and councillors each do, for instance). Also noteworthy was the comeback given to someone concerned about more seats for ‘non-mainstream’ parties under electoral reform: “We cannot design our [local] electoral system on the basis that we dislike UKIP”.
Discussion from the floor also covered the need for a voting system that retains the constituency link, avoids list systems and does not exclude independent candidates. The Single Transferable Vote – which does all that – would be a great addition to the devolution agenda at a local level.
Watch the full fringe event here: