British politics is suffering from a solidarity deficit. That isn’t to say we have become a meaner nation, nor that fellow-feeling is in decline. Those things are hard to quantify. It is, however, reasonable to posit that trust in politicians to mediate between competing interests, to pool and reallocate resources, has slumped in recent decades. Confidence in the welfare state is also slipping. The NHS still enjoys widespread support, but the benefits system is unloved. That is partly a function of Conservative campaigns to discredit it, but also a consequence of structural archaism. The case for large-scale redistribution via Whitehall has not been effectively made for a generation. This shift in attitudes poses a challenge for all of society but, in party political terms, it is a nightmare for Labour.
For all that the party has reconnected with vintage socialism under Jeremy Corbyn, the practical case for politics as a collective social enterprise has not advanced since Ed Miliband’s attempt to poach the rhetoric of “one nation” solidarity that had been abandoned by the Tories. Theresa May now strives to poach it back along with other activist measures – industrial strategy to address regional imbalances, for example – that Mr Miliband considered as a way of rehabilitating the idea of beneficent government.
But the likeliest arena for a revival of trust in politics is not national but local government. The closer people feel, culturally and geographically, to their elected officers, the more inclined they might be to feel well represented. But for that connection to be credible, local politicians need to have real power. That has not been the case at least since the Thatcher era. Central government has not trusted them to exercise serious discretion over tax-and-spend policy and, partly as a result of that suspicion, local politicians are reputed to be of lower calibre than their national counterparts.
That presumption, never entirely fair, is now obsolete. Devolution of power has been the trend since the turn of the 21st century, first to Scotland and Wales, then Northern Ireland, and now, in the latest iteration, elections on 4 May to mayoralties for newly combined local authority jurisdictions in England. Of these, the largest and most influential will be Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, including Birmingham. At the same time there are ballots for established borough and county council seats across Britain, plus a parliamentary byelection in Gorton.
The results of this “super Thursday” of polls will be scrutinised in Westminster in terms of what they reveal about the national picture – which of the main parties is up, which down and how that affects their leaders’ prospects. But the bigger question is whether the new mayoral jobs will be taken by dynamic individuals determined to exercise their powers with imagination and independence. The West Midlands contest looks close between the Tory Andy Street, the former John Lewis boss, and the former Labour MP Siôn Simon. Although nothing is certain in UK politics, the Manchester and Liverpool contests look highly likely to be won by Labour MPs Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram. Since Bristol and London already have directly elected Labour mayors, super Thursday could firmly establish the party as a leader in devolved executive power.
That would present a massive opportunity on many levels. First, it matters that Labour is in government and seen to be in government. The party has lost Scotland but still governs in Wales. Yet Mr Corbyn’s leadership in Westminster too often gives the impression that the opposition is too focused on symbolic protest. National opinion polls give little hope of a swift return to ministerial office in Whitehall, so offices at local level are vital for Labour to demonstrate that it is still a home for policy innovation and responsible decision-making. Local government can also nurture new talent and leadership – filling a void left by a demoralised and often unimaginative cohort of parliamentarians. Some of the most thoughtful Labour MPs are now former local government leaders – Jim McMahon from Oldham; Steve Reed from Lambeth. There should be more traffic of this kind in both directions between the Commons and town halls.
Above all, citywide rule might be the route for delivering the kind of practical change that would remind voters why it might be worth having Labour in government, not perpetual opposition. It is a stage on which to enact a new politics of fairness and solidarity as opposed to just talking about them.
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