Labour manifesto: a contradictory commitment to devolution

Halls of power. Maurice/Flickr, CC BY

Labour’s 2015 manifesto has a feel that we are not yet getting the party’s full thinking on how Britain should be governed. Certainly there is a slew of headline commitments, which include:

  • Votes for 16 and 17-year-olds
  • An elected Senate of the Nations and Regions to replace the House of Lords
  • Support for the Human Rights Act and the European Court of Human Rights
  • A strategic defence and security review in the first year of government
  • Greater devolution to Scotland and Wales
  • A pay cut for ministers

But other key aspects are either vague or left out altogether.

For example, there is a priority commitment to set up a constitutional convention to “drive political reform of Westminster” and the evolution of the union. But there is little detail on what could be highly significant change in the way the UK is governed. Speculation has already begun as to what the main focus will be and who will sit on this “people-led” convention.

Ending centralisation?

The main story which appears several times is ending “a century of centralisation”. Labour says it will deliver “the biggest devolution of power to our English city and county regions in 100 years with an English Devolution Act”. It plans to transfer £30 billion to the country’s regions, “along with new powers over economic development, skills, employment, housing, and business support”. This, the party hopes, will not only foster regional dynamism but also cut costs identified through the Zero-Based Review – Labour’s wide-ranging review of government expenditure – and help reform the NHS.

What is not said here is key. Michael Barber, Tony Blair’s delivery guru, has recently pointed out that much is being promised this election in terms of money going into the system but not really by way of what it’s exactly going to be used for. Even more tellingly, a month ago in an interview with The Guardian, Lord Falconer – another key ally for Blair during his radical public services reforming phase and now in charge of planning Labour’s transition to government should it win the election – provided a fascinating insight into Labour’s thinking on the issue of governance.

He spoke of devolution being one of those cross-cutting government priorities that history, especially the experience of trying to establish “joined-up government” in the early Blair era, tells us needs to be forcibly directed by a strong centre. Falconer went on to explain that ambitious manifesto commitments such as devolution – but also those of a huge home-building programme and improving the capability and productivity of the workforce – will need changes to the machinery of government around focus and coordination.

Because of this interview, we now know that Labour would actually aim to create a stronger centre than before through “a prime minister’s office that is able to evaluate and drive policy in the priority areas of the government”.

This manifesto suggests decentralisation will be a major focus of a Labour government. It does not explain that big machinery of government reform is being contemplated, however, with greater No. 10 centralisation at its core.

There is a clear contradiction here. On the one hand Labour’s manifesto advocates moving greater power to the UK’s cities and regions – this radical devolution only possible with clarity and strength. But, behind the scenes, there are clear moves to bolster the top of Whitehall.