A warm welcome please for Andy Sawford, Labour’s new shadow minister for the cities.
He certainly needs all the encouragement he can get, because Labour’s approach to devolving cash and power to the big cities is a bit of a dog’s dinner.
Mr Sawford isn’t yet a household name but you can’t blame him for that. He only became an MP last year, when he won the by-election in Corby, Northamptonshire, caused by high-profile Tory Louise Mensch’s decision to go and seek her fortune in America.
But his opposite number on the Conservative benches is slightly better known. Greg Clark has been leading the way on a range of policies including the “city deals” agreed between the major cities and the government, the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships and the implementation of Michael Heseltine’s proposals to devolve cash from Whitehall to local authorities.
These may all sound a bit technical, but they have one aim in mind – to take money away from Whitehall and give it to local bodies which know how to spend it. In particular, the aim is to create jobs by letting local politicians and business leaders have a lot more control over regeneration programmes, housing and skills, rather than imagining that civil servants in Whitehall know what is best for a region such as the West Midlands.
Okay, Mr Clark probably doesn’t get stopped in the street. But council leaders, chamber of commerce heads and the type of people involved with Local Enterprise Partnerships certainly know who he is.
And I think it’s fair to say he’s quite highly rated – even by Labour politicians in local government.
While civic leaders might appreciate Mr Clark’s efforts (much more than they enjoy working with the combative Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles), that doesn’t mean they think the Government has got everything right.
For example, although George Osborne, the Chancellor, says he has accepted Tory peer Lord Heseltine’s proposal to devolve billions of pounds a year to local regeneration schemes, he’s only made around £2 billion a year available – much less than Lord Heseltine suggested. Even so, there’s a feeling that the Tories “get it” when it comes to giving the cities more power – and that Labour doesn’t.
Newcastle City Council’s Labour leader Nick Forbes, speaking at a fringe event at Labour’s conference this year, warned: “It is surely of great concern to us, the Labour Party, that there are more Tory Ministers that get this agenda than there are shadow ministers.
“So we have to make sure we win the fight for devolution and greater reform at a local level in advance of the next general election manifesto.”
Just one opinion, perhaps.
But Sir Albert Bore, Labour leader of Birmingham City Council said the same thing at a fringe event at Labour’s conference 12 months previously.
He warned: “I think the last Labour government was concerned about arguments that localism would create too much inequality of provision, forgetting that in order to tackle inequality you have to respond to inequality differently in different places.
“It’s centralisation that actually prevents our ability to deal with inequality and hence perpetuates that inequality.”
And he continued: “I don’t like saying this, but in many ways the current government has shown more commitment to localism and we have to recognise that and put that right in the manifesto in 2015.”
Now that was a year ago, but little has changed since then.
Of course, I’m sure Coun Forbes and Sir Albert would happily name a dozen other policy areas where they think Labour has got it right. But devolution is not one of them and given that devolution is believed to be one of the keys to getting regional economies growing and cutting unemployment, it’s a major issue.
What exactly is Labour’s policy? The last Labour government created Regional Development Agencies, with budgets of hundreds of millions of pounds.
These were effectively regional branches of the Department for Trade and Industry (now renamed the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) rather than truly local bodies, but Labour went into the last election vowing to keep them.
So the party had a clear policy when the Government axed the agencies and replaced them with Local Enterprise Partnerships. It opposed this change.
But now what? Labour appears more or less to accept the Government’s existing policies – Local Enterprise Partnerships, city deals, the Heseltine report – in the sense that it won’t overturn them. However, it hasn’t embraced them either. There’s no Labour Shadow Minister who speaks with any enthusiasm about the Parnerships, or about city deals. At the same time, they haven’t proposed alternatives.
Some of the responsibility for this must lie with Chuka Umunna, the Shadow Business Secretary. In the run-up to the 2010 General Election, Labour’s Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, campaigned tirelessly to portray Labour as the party committed to regional economic growth.
By contrast, Mr Umunna – despite being rated very highly by colleagues and journalists at Westminster – seems to know a hell of a lot about London but has less to say about life beyond the M25.
There’s one ray of light, and that’s the growth review commissioned by Labour leader Ed Miliband being conducted by Lord Adonis, the Labour peer who is a genuine enthusiast for redistributing power to the cities beyond London.
Has been travelling the country to hear the views of councils and business leaders, and his findings will be used to help develop policies for the next Labour manifesto.
But while there’s still plenty of time before the next election in May 2015 for Labour to embrace localism, it certainly hasn’t happened so far.
Which brings me back to Andy Sawford. Remember that name, because it will be his task to explain exactly what Labour will do to prove to the likes of Sir Albert and Coun Forbes that his party is committed to devolution after all.