by GK Strategy 3rd July, 2014

L is for Labour – L is for Localism?

One of the most frequent exam questions we are set as part of our due diligence services is: “How far would a Labour government post-2015 seek to shift power back to the centre?” This is relevant to all sorts of industries, particularly in areas such as public health and care services, and in staffing and recruitment.

This is because the Labour Party continues to “enjoy” a reputation for command and control. But this is arguably a collective vestigial memory of the good old days of the 1970s and 1980s when socialists were socialists. Although there were some notable exceptions – NHS Professionals, anyone? – the Labour governments of 1997, 2001 and 2005 were actually responsible for setting in motion many of the devolutionary trends that persist today. Tony Blair’s vision of a liberated NHS dominated by independent Foundation Trusts, and a schools sector led by academies freed from Whitehall bureaucracy, may not have been fully realised – but it was there.

“Ah!” you may be saying. “But what about Ed Miliband – or Red Ed? He seems pretty left-leaning to me. In fact, doesn’t he want to remake capitalism?”

Well, yes – but there are limits to his ambition. Miliband recognises that voters value the idea that decisions should be made close to the people they affect. Or to put it another way, most voters are by nature supporters of localism, even if they wouldn’t describe it like that. This can be seen in all sorts of ways: schoolchildren’s parents demanding a louder say; campaigns against closures of local hospitals; decisions on speed cameras and traffic calming measures; angry demonstrations against fracking or wind turbines.

The challenge for politicians is to roll with that wave of local opinion. Miliband is attempting to do just that. His party’s Growth Review, led by Lord Adonis (the man behind the Academies Programme and High Speed 2), aims to give power and money to cities and regions that demonstrate innovation and forward thinking. The Greater Manchester Combined Authority – formed of 10 councils – is being held up as the kind of model Labour want to encourage elsewhere in the UK.

Of course, this is a similar idea to the City Deals being championed by the current government. But Labour will be banking on the mistrust voters feel about the Coalition’s relationship with councils and other civic groups. Cameron’s “Big Society” has largely been jettisoned – we can’t remember the last time we heard him use the phrase – and Eric Pickles has not exactly endeared himself to local authorities over the past four years. We’ve also seen this government draw back from more radical ways to devolve power and funding, such as those set out in Michael Heseltine’s Growth Review, “No Stone Unturned”, which was largely ignored by Downing Street.

The reality is that there is a strong consensus over the importance of localism from all parties. The difference today seems to be that a Labour government might be more willing to put its money where its mouth is. But the question will remain whether Ed Miliband would be the same man if he got the keys to Number 10. Despite the vogue for localism, it is still a very unusual kind of politician who gains power after a long struggle – only to give it away.

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