Whatever else the 11-strong Independent Group of MPs decides it wants, a bold and rational decentralisation of United Kingdom government should be right up at the top of its list. TIG – as it has quickly become known – could make a serious splash on the national stage by painting a picture of a future UK where really big decisions about its cities and regions are taken much closer to the people who live in those areas. This would radically separate them from the “old politics” they say they oppose and also be a good idea. Handily for them, one of the bounciest TIG-gers already has a blueprint up his sleeve.
In October 2015, just weeks after Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, Streatham MP Chuka Umunna set out ideas for creating a “federal Britain”, under a system he dubbed “devo default”. The guiding assumption was that “power should be devolved from the centre unless there is a good reason to do otherwise”.
Umunna envisaged accelerating devolution deals to big cities and also suburban and rural areas, with each authority having its own policies on big themes such as education, health and transport. The settlement we now have – London’s GLA and Mayor and the newer metro mayors in the North and Midlands of England – would be but the start of the process. Umunna argued that less centralised EU nations were also far less unequal. George Osborne had snatched the baton from Labour with his Northern Powerhouse initiative. For economic, democratic and cultural reasons, Umunna said, Labour should re-claim the initiative.
Fans of Jeremy Corbyn who continue to insist that his plodding, post-war, pre-Thatcher era revivalism represents hope for some kind of dazzling New Dawn should ask themselves why a Labour Party that is, incredibly, trailing the calamitous Conservatives in national opinion polls has not put building on the devolution agenda at the heart of a modernisation programme for a post-Brexit UK – or even a no Brexit one, for that matter. The answer is, of course, that core Corbynism is a state of mind that wants to monopolise and consolidate control, not spread it around more generously.
In this, the current Labour Party is every bit as reactionary as the Conservatives, perhaps more so. It is a close thing, too, over which of the two big parties is the most anti-London. Labour can claim that its 2017 general election manifesto promised more good things for the capital than the Tory one did, but both documents pandered to the populist presumption that if only London were deprived of public investment and more tax payer money given to everywhere else instead the “north-south divide” would immediately start to disappear – a bogus argument still doing the rounds that dodges inconvenient realities.
A truly progressive approach to the harmful disparities between and within cities and regions would be to hand far more power to them all, along with the resources to make the best use of it. That should certainly include both levels of London government, along with everywhere else.
No doubt, there would be plenty of arguments to be had about aspects of Umunna’s original prescription as a whole, including what he sketched out for a reformed House of Lords and a Westminster that served as a place for strong regional and city authorities to meet and make decisions about “matters affecting the whole country”.
But as a way of recognising urban and regional identities, placing local strengths and knowledge above the “top down” Whitehall mentality and nurturing new ways for the different parts of the UK to be both proudly distinctive and part of the same broad national entity, it was a promising start. It could also be a part of the new and better relationship so badly needed between London and the rest of the UK. If the Independent Group wants to construct a policy platform that really could break the mould of UK politics, they should boldly build on it without delay.