England & Wales, Scotland Democracy, devolution and governance

Can we see the future of localism in election manifestos?

Image: AlanOrganLRPS (licensed from istock)

Can party manifestos reveal much about the current state and possible future of localism? Particularly when they were the result of the calling of a snap election and one which is dominated by Brexit? And in Scotland, while Brexit plays a big part, much debate is centred around Indyref2 and if it will be allowed, negotiated or demanded.

I think the answer is that they do provide some indications of where we could be post-election – with provisos of course; a hung parliament can change the agenda; leaving the EU early in 2020 will be significantly different from the UK preparing for a new referendum.

So what about the state of localism? There is no substantive or coherent vision for decentralisation in any party manifesto. Even the Conservatives who are promoting a post-Brexit world don’t use that as a springboard for stressing subsidiarity.

There are, though, warm words from all the parties. The Conservatives repeat their commitment to an English Devolution White Paper, but with little detail. Labour is equally short on specifics. There is the promise to “decentralise decision-making and strengthen local democracy”. There is one explicit commitment to devolution to Yorkshire, grouping cities such as Leeds, Sheffield and Barnsley with the areas around them. The Liberal Democrats promise to allow groups of local authorities to come together and established devolved governance.

There is a sense, though, in all the manifestos that the regions are seen as critical in boosting growth, but do any of them match up to the “radical or transformative change”  the IPPR North and others were seeking? Will power be fundamentally shifted to the regions and our towns and cities? No – not if the manifestos are the test. However, the parties do propose greater decentralised control over, for example, investment decisions and control over key services such as transport. Labour commits to a Local Transformation Fund in each region and the devolved governments and regional development banks; the Liberal Democrats greater devolution of decisions over transport, energy and skills; the Conservatives more devolution to city region mayors and they will ‘encourage growth bodies similar to the northern powerhouse’.

The Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative manifestos all talk about greater devolution to the devolved administrations and stress what extra funding will be allocated. The parties have a different slant on whether they would allow a new independent referendum – the Conservatives have hardened their opposition. Labour’s Scottish manifesto says that they would not agree to a new referendum ‘in the early days’ of a new Labour government, but their Scottish leader, Richard Leonard, seems to suggest that they would not block a referendum if pro-independence parties win a majority at the next Holyrood election.

It doesn’t look at all likely that we will see a major and sustainable reform of the local government finance system by the next government. Labour is silent on the council tax – but interestingly Scottish Labour wants to abolish it if they win power in the next Holyrood election. They all talk about business rates. Labour ‘will consider’ a land value to replace business rates and the Liberal Democrats are more certain about wanting change – to replace business rates with a Commercial Landowner Levy. We don’t get any details – but these are manifestos and not policy plans.

Will the adult social care system be reformed at last in the next parliament? No-one would be foolish enough to say categorically yes. All the parties recognise that this is a huge issue in England. Labour will establish a National Care Service with free personal care for older people and ensure no one faces care costs of more than £100,000 for the care they need in old age, with a lifetime cap on personal contributions to care costs. The Tories would ‘build a cross-party consensus on long-term adult social care funding, with the condition that no-one should have to sell their home to fund their care. There is the basis for some cross party support here – with some common ground. Will it happen? That is anyone’s guess.

What about major constitutional issues? The Conservatives propose a constitution, democracy and rights commission to look at the constitutional power balance between the executive (government and crown), parliament and the judiciary. Labour would work to abolish the House of Lords in favour of an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions. They would establish a UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly to consider how power is distributed in the UK today and how nations and regions can best relate to each other. The Liberal Democrats would Reform the House of Lords with a full democratic mandate and move towards a federal United Kingdom by creating a written UK constitution. Will these issues have priority with a new government – dealing with Brexit or a new referendum?

Depending on who wins or if we end up with another hung parliament there could be very significant changes to how local government services and social security are commissioned, delivered and financed in England and Wales. The IFS have published an analysis on what the manifestos could mean for local government funding which is an interesting read. Our post-election briefings will no doubt look at these areas and at how any commitments will be taken through in a Queen’s Speech, whoever wins. There are, however, wider issues that are more difficult to pin down. As Jonathan Carr-West highlights in a recent Municipal Journal article:

“In order to think effectively about structural and service issues in local government we need a more fundamental debate about what public services look like in the modern world, and about the intersection between communities, services and democratic institutions”.

The huge challenges around trust in politics (and indeed in representative democracy), and an increasingly polarised climate not only in the UK but globally, are not going to be upfront in any manifesto, but they are increasingly high on the political agenda. What we can say – even though these are issues that are frighteningly complex – is that part of tackling them must be to start at the local and community level. And that will always mean much greater subsidiarity and a strong ethos of localism.

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