Labour’s long tradition of participation, self-government and moral reform is being re-claimed by voices from all sides of the party. Decentralisation, pluralism and people power: who could possibly disagree? It’s one thing, after all, that members of Progress, Compass and Blue Labour all sign up to, in their different ways.
But politics is about trade-offs and priorities. Yes, Labour should adopt a ‘presumption of decentralisation’, but there are clear restrictions on how, and how far, this should be pushed. This is both because there are difficult tensions within the left-decentralist agenda, and also because decentralisation risks becoming a distraction from the huge national ambitions we need to embrace.
Our politics of the state must first be about the big, long-term challenges which only collective action on a national scale can resolve: growth and productivity; demographic change; carbon reduction; housing supply - and, for us on the left, a fairer labour market for the middle and bottom, reduced health inequalities and closing the gap in life chances. Labour’s years in office show what the state can achieve, and not just through tax-and-spend; for example long-term, sustainable frameworks for pensions provision and carbon reduction.
Creating this ‘cover’ with respect to the overall size of the state, would provide Labour, if we win, with the opportunity to radically restructure how public money is raised and spent. This could include greater devolution of public service spending, and perhaps the introduction of more local taxation. But most of the task is for the national state. Labour should re-write the tax-code to make it pro-green, pro-work, pro-asset stability, long-termist and progressive. We should also see what scope there is to integrate tax and welfare, to bind everyone into a common, more universal and contribution-based system. Nor should we any longer tolerate social security being a cause of widening inequality, but instead index state credits to earnings; an example of a small change from the centre which over decades will transform life chances.
So the decentralist agenda will need to jostle with an inevitable and desirable programme of central action. But there is also intense competition within the decentralist camp itself, with many visions and versions of the new empowering state. Decentralisation may be a guiding principle, but it is also a toolkit, and there are different objectives and consequences implicit in the tools we choose. Some decentralist solutions seek to disempower and by-pass local democracy, while others aim to strengthen it. Giving cash to service users and big payment-by-results contracts are both pluralist innovations, but their consequences are totally different. At every turn we must ask what means and ends we are pursuing and how they may rub-up against each other: personal control and responsibility? stronger democracy? professional autonomy? savings, efficiency and competitive innovation? enduring public institutions? community and civic life? and of course, better service outcomes?
Finally decentralisers on the left must be extremely wary that they are not widening, rather than narrowing, inequalities of power. There is always the risk that those with the nous and sharp elbows will act in ways that benefit themselves rather than the community at large. There is a fine line, for example, between creating aspirational inner-city schools that bind professional parents into comprehensive education and Michael Gove’s vision of free schools which seem to be all about giving privileged parents the ability to opt-out. The left’s version of power-to-the people must be about levelling-up, for those without control over their lives, not just giving more to those who do.
A version of this article appears in November’s Progress magazine