With party conference season in full flow, the opposition parties are setting out their visions for how power should be decentralised to the nations and regions of the UK – their alternatives to the devolution that has gradually emerged under the Conservatives over the past decade.
But both the Labour and Liberal Democrat policies are still works in progress and it is far from clear exactly what they will offer the voters at the next general election.
Sir Keir Starmer, Labour Party leader, has called for more power for local and regional elected leaders but without specifying exactly how and at what level, while the Liberal Democrats are calling for a UK Constitutional Convention to draft a new federal constitution.
In a long essay setting out his vision for the country’s road ahead, Sir Keir calls for a change that would give people ‘real control over their lives and their local area. It would give power to make decisions to local communities rather than people in Westminster.’
He writes: ‘I believe that where and how decisions are made is crucial. During the pandemic, we saw how Labour politicians in power across the country were able to make a huge difference to their local area. But it also exposed how piecemeal regional power is. Too many places do not have those strong local voices. And even where they do, the powers they possess are not enough to match the power of their arguments. That is why if the people of Britain put their trust in us and return Labour to power, we will return power to the people of Britain.
‘It should go without saying that the best person to make decisions about what a community needs is someone who is part of and understands that community – but too often that does not happen. Britain today is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. Crucial decisions are too often made in offices in Westminster with little consideration of the lives they impact hundreds of miles away. That must change.
‘Labour in government would show that we take seriously people’s demands for more control. We will deliver social justice, stronger communities and unlock potential by unlocking power, wealth and opportunity across the United Kingdom. But we will not do that by decree – we will put power and control in the hands of the people, whether at work, in accessing public services, or over the decisions that affect their lives.’
Whether that would mean changing the current system of devolution deals to combined authorities, or perhaps counties, that are prepared to accept an elected mayor is not clear, though the reference to ‘the best person to make decisions’ suggests that under Labour elected mayors would be here to stay.
A motion passed at the Liberal Democrat conference calls for a directly elected regional tier of government in England with responsibility for regional economic development. NHS and social care services, policing, strategic housing and planning policy, regional transport, education, including skills, agriculture and rural affairs and local environmental and decarbonisation policy.
Regional boundaries would be determined by ‘a process based on natural communities and local consent’.
An elected regional assembly for the North East was rejected by a large majority in a referendum in 2004.
More specific proposals than the broad principles set out by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats will, presumably, be included in their manifestos at the next general election, after Labour’s constitutional convention being led by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and its Liberal Democrat counterpart referred to above have reported.