Britain isn’t working. That is the inciting claim of Labour shadow levelling up secretary Lisa Nandy’s new book, All In: How We Build a Country That Works. In the ensuing 200 pages, Nandy lays out a litany of public policy failures that have afflicted the UK in the Thatcher and post-Thatcher era. Stagnant wages, widening inequality, poor working conditions, the breakdown of the social contract, the loss of anchor institutions and the rise of populism all result, she claims, from a broken economic model.
The result, Nandy argues, has been a growing divide between politicians and the electorate. Her answer? To close that gap by moving decision-making closer to where the impacts of policy take effect. Much of this is reflected in Gordon Brown’s recent constitutional review, which recommended, for instance, embedding the subsidiarity principle — the idea that the centre should only do what cannot be done at local level — and empowering towns, cities and regions.
But Westminster in not the only centre that is seen as problematic. The economic argument at the heart of ‘Nandy-ism’ is that city-led agglomeration — the basis on which much public investment is decided — does not work, or at least not for most places. She rejects the assumption, for instance, that what is good for Manchester is automatically good for Wigan, or for any town in the orbit of a major city. Inequality within regions is as much of an issue as that between regions. And we should not assume that pushing powers to major cities will automatically radiate wealth to surrounding areas. Nandy rightly points out that the reality is more complicated.
So, the case for reform is powerfully made, albeit based largely on anecdote rather than data. But where the book falls somewhat short is on the ‘how’. It does not engage much with the difficulties that the proposed policy solutions would inevitably throw up.
Let’s take the two of the major proposals.
Firstly, more involvement of communities in decision-making. This is instinctively appealing, but how feasible is it in practice? For most, the grinding day-to-day work of politics is outsourced to representatives for a reason. In my experience, most people have better things to do. And, as any public consultation shows, opening decision making to the public is not a panacea. It mainly attracts those that are politically highly engaged, often with an axe to grind, giving them disproportionate influence while the average citizen goes largely unheard.
Just as important as pushing power out is rebuilding trust in all our institutions, including those at the centre, so that more people want to engage with the political process at all levels. There is a risk that anti-Westminster sentiment perpetuates an environment of distrust and undermines Nandy’s wider desire to rebuild faith in our political system.
Secondly, more powers for communities. Again, an appealing principle. But there are good reasons that governments of all colours have not devolved more powers to local authorities and below. For the last Labour government, for instance, it was partly out of a desire not to unintentionally empower the far left to pursue dangerous policies at a local level that damaged Labour nationally, repeating the ‘loony left’ scandals of the 1980s. Without care, there is a risk that radical devolution, minus the necessary checks and balances, leads to worse outcomes than is currently the case.
Labour in government would need to make sure that when power and resources are devolved we also build in strong checks and balances. The institutional architecture of devolution in England requires careful attention. For instance, could the remits of the Office for Budget Responsibility and National Audit Office be extended down?
Ultimately, Nandy’s argument is a strategic one. It is not about the nuts and bolts of delivery. The balance of power between the centre and the periphery — both Westminster to regions and regions to towns — needs to shift towards the latter. This is not a parochial point. Local knowledge and expertise matter, and help tailor policies to local conditions. As Tony Blair said in his first speech to the Scottish Parliament in 2000, “Let Scotland and Wales do what they do best locally. Let the UK do what it is right to do together.” More than 20 years later, it feels appropriate to revisit where powers are best exercised across the UK, especially England. Both Nandy and Brown deserve credit for driving forward this debate.
But Nandy’s arguments are also, at times, underdeveloped. Understandably for a politician, she often reaches for pithy conclusions that are instinctively compelling, but raise as many questions as they claim to resolve. For instance, she says: “Much ink has been spilt trying to find the solution to Britain’s problems but the answer is simple. Hand people power and resources and they will build a country that works.” Is it really that simple?
I grew up in Don Valley constituency in South Yorkshire — the “red wall”, if you like — also on the periphery of a major city in northern England (Sheffield). Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see the towns of northern England and elsewhere thriving, independent and not reliant on paltry handouts from Whitehall. But the route there is, unfortunately, more complicated than simply handing down power and resources. Careful thought is also needed as to what is done with them. It will not automatically be the case that they will be used better. To deploy a bit of Yorkshire pessimism (I’d like to think realism), if recent years have shown us anything, to misquote D:Ream, things can always get worse. There are risks here, as well as opportunities, and it is important to recognise them in order to deliver effective reform. But there is little doubt that reform is needed.
To read more about what we can learn from the party’s past as we move forward, read A century which proves Labour only wins on the centre-ground.