Former prime minister Gordon Brown’s review of the UK constitution could be a hugely significant moment for the UK. A radical agenda for political change is being offered by the party tipped to win the next election.
The Brown review outlines a wide-ranging reform agenda but its core theme is the need to reverse the UK’s economic fortunes. Political reforms (such as replacing the House of Lords with an assembly of the nations and regions) are presented as solutions to the UK’s economic challenges, particularly its regional inequalities and its productivity problem.
The report takes direct aim at the Conservative government’s levelling up agenda, dismissing it as a failure and proposing that “a bigger vision is needed”.
Over the last few years, levelling up has emerged as the Conservative party’s vision for a post-Brexit Britain, offering a commitment to revitalise the country’s less affluent areas and rebalance the economy away from London. Until now, the Labour party has offered relatively little in response.
In the Brown report, there are strong echoes of levelling up slogans in the claim that “talent is everywhere but opportunities are not equally spread”. The similarities are clearest in the analysis of how ordinary people are held back by geographic inequalities, and how these are linked to an over-centralised government system. There is support for devolving similar economic policy levers in areas such as skills, research and development and transport.
There are also call-backs to the previous Labour government’s attempts at regional rebalancing. The regional development agencies of the 2000s could be reborn as regional partnerships in the 2020s. And the London Assembly model that Labour created back in the late 90s may become a blueprint for the other regions of England in the longer term.
The dilemma facing Labour is that this policy area seems to be crying out for consistency but also in desperate need of reform. There is also a growing academic consensus around geographical rebalancing and political decentralisation.
Labour is proposing further devolution to Scotland and Wales but it is on English devolution that the most ambitious proposals are made. The report proposes a major decentralisation of power, giving “as much autonomy as possible” to England’s lower levels of government.
The Tory levelling up agenda has focused on devolving powers to achieve a set of centrally prescribed “missions”. In contrast, Labour proposes the centre retains only the powers that cannot be practically devolved. In place of the levelling up missions, Labour proposes a set of “social rights”, giving every local authority responsibility to safeguard people’s rights to, for example, health, education, and good housing. Funding would be delivered as block grants so that local areas could decide how to best spend their allocations.
Brown also repeatedly emphasises the need to give local government “constitutional protection”. Currently, the government can reorganise local government with ease. This has contributed to a history of instability, complexity and centralisation. Labour’s answer is for the assembly that replaces the House of Lords to have protecting devolution as one of its central missions. There would also be legal commitments to protect local autonomy, to devolve power, and to allow local government to take powers from the centre. This could mean that the rest of country will have a route to access the powers currently wielded by Andy Burnham in Manchester and Andy Street in the West Midlands.
Will it work?
The Brown report makes very big claims about decentralisation. A lot more detail is needed to show that there really will be a significant shift in power. The report concedes it will be a slow process because local leaders will be responsible for uniting in “partnerships” to receive powers. Levelling up is already expected to take until the end of the decade and Labour’s approach could be even slower.
The real difficulty here is that it is not clear where the boundaries should be drawn between England’s different regions. London and Manchester are quite clear, but in the north-east or the east Midlands, things are a lot more contentious. There is clearly caution about making such decisions at the centre, but leaving it to local leaders is a slow process, and likely to become mired in local politics. There is also a missing voice for local people in saying what their “region” or “local area” actually is.
Decentralisation alone cannot solve the UK’s economic challenges. That requires local governments having the capacity to develop long-term strategies for their own areas. There are major problems with these capacities at the moment. Labour is promising to devolve powers only if local government has the capability to use them effectively – but that will take funding. Breaking the deadlock will require intensive intervention from the centre to improve local policymaking.
There is potentially a big transfer of powers on the cards here, within England at least. But Labour will first need to solve the problem of England’s political geography, address the lack of local capability, and resist central micromanagement.