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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Richard Leese

“Labour and England”

21 October 2015

University of Winchester

Sir Richard Leese, Leader, Manchester City Council


This is an uncorrected transcript of talks given at the ‘Labour and England’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 21 October 2015. Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.

 ….. a semi-autonomous labour political organisation operating should we not have the same in Greater Manchester within that federal structure. By and large I also have the view if we did have a semi-autonomous labour political organisation in Greater Manchester, we would do a damn site better job than the national Labour Party at the moment, at least for Greater Manchester.  – laughter!

I suppose a starting point for me was really how devolution fits into what the Labour Party is all about.  That is the big question.  After that general election results earlier this year which, no under illusion, it was a disastrous general election result.  I mean John Cruddas who’s starting the review of the general election results I think certainly in audiences I was in described it as an existential crisis for the Labour Party, i.e. what are we for and who are we for?  By and large that is a debate that has not taken place since the General Election result was out of the way.  And I think it’s a debate we do have to have sooner rather than later.  And there will be a tension there in what different people think we are for, for some people, and this is wholly consistent with socialist history and Labour Party history, they will take a somewhat statist approach to what we are about.  I take the view that we are about building strong individuals, strong communities, that just as I was talking about autonomy there, communities where people have more control over their own lives, over their own destinies.  Then as you build up that we become a collection of collectives if you like, and if we do that then we will have a stronger country, a happier country and all the other things that I think we want.  But I think also that apart from that something else we want are… and this is deeply enshrined in the Labour Party values, is around equality and social justice.  Equality and social justice implies that you have to be able to move from one place in society to another place in society and that that journey becomes possible. That translates to me in policy terms that what we in many communities need to do is to end social determination or certainly stop social determination becoming inevitable. By that I mean that people are inevitably a product of who they are born to and where they are born, and all the evidence says actually that is how the country operates at the moment, that we don’t have social mobility, and social mobility I think for me is an important part of what the Labour Party should do, has traditionally done.  I suppose an example would be the speech from a long time ago, and I do go back a long way, Neil Kinnock speaking at the national Labour Party conference talking about himself being the first person in his family to go to university.  And that is one of the things we want to do as a Labour Party, it’s a metaphor really but to give opportunity for far more of our young people to go to university.  Unfortunately, metaphors often get turned into dogma and actually what we really want is far more for our young people to go to university or to do higher level apprenticeships or to do a range of stuff that means they will get a useful future.

I became a councillor in 1984, became leader of the Council in 1996, so if you invite me back in June, depending on what the electorate do, I will have done ?? years.  At the moment just on 19 ½ years as leader, but it is still a long time.  It does mean I was leader for a year under the John Major government and was Leader throughout the entirety of the Blair/Brown government.  And I guess some talk about Labour and devolution generally going back to 1997.  Labour had very clear devolutionary manifestos, devolution for Scotland delivered, devolution for Wales delivered and devolution for the English regions – not delivered.  Not delivered I think in part because it was the right idea but actually in many respects fundamentally flawed as well.  Because what is was trying to do was to create regional government for regions that in most cases did not share that sense of common identity that was required to be that sort of mini state if you like, and regions based on the standardised government regional offices, not on any natural geography at all, that made no economic sense whatsoever and indeed in many cases were a bit of an economic nonsense. If you take my own region, the North West of England, the north of that, you know Carlisle and so on, has economically far more in common with Newcastle and the North East than it does with the rest of the North West. So it was an attempt to impose structures that had no inherent sense within them.  It was also the case in my… certainly my experience was that, and this is quite surprising really, that we had a Labour government that was completely hostile to cities.  I say it is quite surprising cos that’s is where most of our members of parliament came from, and the evidence for that is that when in the late nineties the Labour government published an urban White Paper, and that in itself was actually quite revolutionary cos the last time anybody looked at urban policy at all was probably the mid-sixties. So but, with a week to go, a draft of an urban White Paper did not mention the word city once from beginning to end, not once.  And I was delegated to go on behalf of the English core cities to see Hilary Armstrong and say if you publish that White Paper in its current form every single city in the country is going to come out and totally oppose it. But even when the word city came in they sort of… they couldn’t still (confuse?) city on its own so it’s a sort of one of these German type words where they just sling things together, so towns and cities, towns and cities, towns and cities all the way through, a real aversion to cities.  And this I think this is important in the devolution debate because certainly in the late 1990s and for most of the late decade the real proponents of the devolution arguments were the cities and particularly the major cities.  And part of the aversion to cities was that John Prescott in particular, apart from Liverpool which he quite liked and Hull which he was a member of parliament for, Manchester I’d say he loathed and really didn’t like us at all.  But John basically saw the devolution argument that cities were putting forward, which was effectively a sub-regional argument, as being a threat to the regional policies that were being pursued.  Now those regional policies didn’t work for a number of reasons, the first was that when Regional Development Agencies were first established in the late nineties, and I was a Board member of an RDA for the first 6 years of its existence, so this partly comes through direct experience, John was Secretary of State and his super Environment, Transport and Regions Department. RDAs were supposed to be about economic development, none of the economic development ministries would give a penny for RDAs.  So actually, they ran various bits of urban programme and regeneration programmes and so on, but they didn’t actually do anything, they had no money for economic development. And they probably ran for about 4 years like that until actually Gordon Brown basically re-purposed RDAs to make them far more economically focussed and also started to give them some money for economic development as well.  And actually, in their latter phase they were probably slightly more useful that they had been originally, although their early history basically had created a culture within RDAs is that they were effectively more what I would term regeneration than economic development.  They were all about dealing with deficits not about dealing with opportunities. The fundamental tasks that they were given was to slow the rate in which economic performance was widening between the regions, not to narrow, just to slow the rate at which it was getting slower, wider.  And even in that they failed, they didn’t succeed in doing that.

I think something else from the attitude of Labour in the early part of that government was generally their attitude to local authorities. A discussion I was having with John just before we kicked off about Hilary Armstrong, first local government minister, being a County Councillor in County Durham which actually at that time it was big enough to put anyone off local government if I am entirely honest, but I think she thought we were all like that.  And of the things that government did was to try and bypass local authorities in a very similar way to what the Thatcher government did around Action for Cities and so on.  So New Deal for Communities when it was established, initially it was supposed to go past local authorities straight to communities.  But then I think we started to get a bit of learning out of that because the only New Deal community programmes that worked were the ones that didn’t bypass local authorities, that managed to work out that if you’re trying to create community capacity in some of the most distressed communities that we’ve got well they don’t start off with that capacity. They don’t have the capacity to manage large amounts of funding, that’s something you have to build over time, and you need an agent, you need a local agent that can work with those communities to do that.  And the best local agent to do that, and one that those communities actually tend to trust, is the local authority, the local councillors and so on.  And we started to get a change I think where local authorities slowly became more and more back into the frame.  I guess the other thing we didn’t get, New Deal communities allowed a few other initiatives, some of the things that came out of the Social Exclusion Unit allowed at a very micro scale what was referred to regularly at that time was joined-up government.  But joined-up government never went beyond that micro scale because to really have joined-up government would have implied fundamental reform of Whitehall itself.  And one of the things the Labour government, its predecessors and successors have not done is to seriously attempt the reform of Whitehall.

So there’s a journey that the Labour government went on, I’m very aware with John here, but so they were a bit slow, it took them longer on that journey than it should have done really.  But you know there are a lot or very able people there recognising that the outcomes that they wanted to achieve weren’t being achieved, recognising that the government was pumping in some areas quite large sums of money into programmes but weren’t getting the outcomes you would expect from the money that you were putting in all sorts of areas.  And I think this starts to look seriously about well how we should be doing things differently.  In terms of economic policy, and I think this is a fundamental shift, John Healey, who’s… I think he was financial secretary in the Treasury at the time, John as I say you know I’ve known since the late nineties and has been a very ardent regionalist.  But he commissioned a piece of work called the Sub-National Review of Economic Development and Regeneration, and I think it was a very profound piece of work because, well it’s a Treasury document so it’s quite long, but it has at least one very simple message which I think is very, very important.  And what it says is that for economic development if you want the best outcomes you have to do things at the right spatial level, the right spatial level is different for different things.  So the old assumption that you do things at a national level, a regional level and a local level and that’s it went out the window, then started what is the right spatial level to be able to do things at.  For economic development it became increasingly clear that for a lot of things the sub-regional level, particularly for city regions, was the right level that you needed to be doing a lot of economic development work.  And it followed from that, and I probably won’t go in great detail on this, if you want to build a link between economic policy and social policy, which if you want to end social determination you do have to build a link between economic policy and social policy, then you need to start managing and commissioning a lot of social policy at the same level as you do economic policy, even though most of that social policy is more likely to delivered at a neighbourhood level and not even at a local authority level, it will be a sub-local authority level in practice.

On the back of the sub-national review, along with a change in Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, not an RDA fan, Liam Byrne, Chief Secretary at the Treasury, a very ardent devolutionist, some very enlightened ministries like John (Devon?) at CLG, there was a body of ministers who started to push a devolution agenda.  And a very serious negotiation took place with a joint council and ministerial sub-committee about a devolution package for Greater Manchester.  Now you might ask why Greater Manchester, and it’s why Greater Manchester was the first with the current government as well, it’s basically we’d done the work, we’d done a lot of the business planning, we’d done a lot of the financial modelling, we had a proposition, we brought something to the table.  And that agreement was signed but unfortunately, we required to win a general election to deliver it and that didn’t happen.  But at the end of the Labour government I think there was a very strong recognition by a significant number of ministers that there were lots or things that we could have done in a different way and we needed to do in a different way.  I’m not going to talk about other Parties in devolution, but it is worth saying that a lot of thinking and ideas that were emerging at the end of the last Labour government the Coalition government basically picked up and run with.  And George Osborne is often identified as being somebody who is a bit of a magpie and likes collecting Labour Party policies for himself, he wasn’t the first, there were others before that as well. 

So first what has the Labour Party in opposition… well the Labour Party in opposition came into very new circumstances, and one particular circumstance was that we had fixed term… very early into that Parliament we had a fixed term Parliament.  Now before fixed term Parliaments that if you were in opposition you had to be ready for a snap general election at any time, so in a sense you had to have a permanent policy readiness.  But a fixed term Parliament you didn’t and indeed being policy ready early had enormous dangers within it, not least all of your policies being stolen before you got anywhere near a general election.  So I think the Labour Party, and in my view quite rightly, spent a long time thinking about its policies.  I think it, quite wrongly, immediately after the general election jumped into a leadership election, so by the time we’d elected a new leader the Tories in particular had already the political ground for the 2015 general election, and inexcusably we hadn’t learned from mistakes cos we’ve just done the same again, so we already playing catch-up with the broader political agenda.  But what it did allow the Labour Party to do was I think some pretty fundamental re-thinking of its position, in some cases inspired by the opposition, us nicking stuff from them.  So one of the seminal reports in economic development terms over the life of the last Parliament was Michael Heseltine’s No Stone Unturned report which, when Andrew Adonis did a review of economic development for the Labour Party in crude terms Andrew just re-wrote Michael’s report in Labour Party language is you like, it was not significantly different.  I had the opportunity with a number of local government colleagues to write a report which in the name of the Local Government Innovation Task Force which allowed us to look very fundamentally at a different way of delivering public services and to deliver it on a locally determined basis, all of which got converted into Labour Party policy.

But there were I think some fairly important things about that, first it was policy written by people who were in local government, that was I think the first time that had ever happened within the Party and it was purely by people within local government.  It was the first time that people from local government went and presented to the Shadow Cabinet and actually had a direct debate with the Shadow Cabinet, and there were a number of Shadow ministers around, people like Hilary Benn and people like John Cruddas, who were very much trying to change the whole sort of culture towards one that was a far more a partnership with Labour local government that was very much anchored around a devolutionary policy.  And for a brief period of time we had a Party that was espousing in quite I think a strong strategic way that we were a Party that was going into a general election launch, win power to give it away, to put it down into local communities.  What I don’t think that it did not become sufficiently embedded in enough senior people within the Party.  And within a matter of months we have reverted to traditional if you like retail politics, it’s about x thousand doctors, x thousand nurses and so on, all very, very important but most of which we know actually completely passes people by, cos lots and lots of, an increasing amount of evidence people vote on values, not on shopping lists.  And I don’t… we stopped addressing the… I think the right issues.  I guess that’s where we’d got to by the last general election but probably within, certainly within the Party and within the Shadow Cabinet there was I think a fairly strong majority in favour of devolution.  For a lot of those who weren’t strongly enough in favour for it to significantly influence other policy areas and there was sufficient resistance from people who were simply against devolution.

Now I’ll just sort of talk about two more things really, one is kind of what are the ideological issues that would make people within the Labour Party against devolution.  Actually they’re quite powerful, social democracy historically wherever it is has tended to prefer uniform national programmes, and it is to do with actually very good reasons, it’s to do with our belief in universality, it’s our aversion to post code lotteries, that everybody should have the same entitlement.  All absolutely right, the right things, what I think we’ve only really started working out in the last five or six years, if you want everybody to have the same entitlement and if everybody is different if you gave them all the same thing they will not get the same outcomes at the end of it.  But it’s actually universality is the creator of post code lotteries not the enemy of post code lotteries, and what you need to do is to move towards, from a national government perspective, is that yes by all means on a whole range of stuff determine what outcomes it is that you want, but then leave people that are closer to the ground the freedom to deliver those outcomes.  There is not a conflict between the two.

The last thing to talk about is really about… and this is about what Labour local government has been doing, is I think in all sorts of cases Labour local government has been trying to seize the ground on behalf of the Labour Party.  I’ll give you an example from the North of England, and it is transport for the north, something like eighteen months ago the five city regions in the North of England got together and agreed that we would produce a pan-northern transport investment prospectus which we would put to government and say this is the investment we want.  And we did that, and it came up with a bill of around £15 billion, which sounds a lot of money, less than the cost of Crossrail so it’s not that much money really.  That was under the badge of One North but it was the city regions, we brought other areas outside the city regions into the frame, they have consulted on part of the process, on the basis that if we got the North of England to speak with one voice then it would make it very difficult for national government (not?) to listen.  And this was OK principally Labour local authorities trying to get Coalition government to listen, and listen they did and went on to form a joint partnership body between the Northern local authorities and the Department For Transport, and earlier this year produced a report called Under the Badge of Transport for the North.  So what we ended up with was a report principally produced by Northern Labour-led local authorities on an initiative we had taken in the first instance where what I would have liked to have seen would have been the Labour Party nationally celebrating what it was that Labour local government was doing.  It raises… actually after the general election we found ourselves in the bizarre position that we had a right-wing Tory chancellor celebrating what a Labour local government was doing and we had a Shadow Secretary of State for Transport who refused to even talk to us about what we were doing.  And I think we had got into I think that really sort of conflicting position and we need to get back to I think a place where, which I think we were in the last days of Gordon Brown’s government, where actually our Labour front bench was working with Labour local councils on a shared agenda, and I think we need to get back to that.

And I suppose we have a narrow window at the moment, we have for me the quite bizarre sight last of week of now Labour Opposition tabling a motion in the House of Commons to basically try and deny a second reading to a piece of legislation that Labour local authorities have been fighting for about a decade, not a good place to be in.  I think we’re going to move away from that in the committee stages this week and next week, and I think that legislation will pass.  But we very rapidly have to get into a position where there is a different dialogue between the Party locally and the Party nationally, which really for me does come into the theme that John’s put up there, is that also means that local parties have to have… and elected representatives need to have a completely different place within the Party to the one that they have traditionally had.  This is particularly acute for us in the North of England, it might be the case for your part of the South of England as well, because if we look at the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party at the moment there is direct… sorry the only representative on the NEC from north of Watford is Jim McMahon who goes there because he’s a representative of the Local Government Association.  So at the moment in terms of national decision-making the North of England is not represented at all within the Labour Party nationally, that has got to be wrong and that implies we need a different model of how we organise, and I think a more devolved more in order to put that right. That’s the first attempt so thank you very much for listening.




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