Big picture politics

Andy Burnham argues that levelling up demands radical democratic reform

How to level up the country? It’s the biggest political question of our times and one being asked with ever-greater urgency as we emerge from the pandemic. Expect it to be a dominant theme during the party conference season.

The fact that regional inequality is today a top order issue is undoubtedly progress. But there is a major problem with the current framing of the “levelling up” debate. It is conveniently ignoring a much more serious prior question: how did England get so unequal in the first place?

It suits many in SW1A to focus on the former question, not the latter. There is a tendency to trade in what Lord Kerslake calls “pea-shooter policies”: superficial, fleeting solutions concocted for media purposes unlikely to have any meaningful impact on the UK’s enormous structural inequalities. Why? Because if Westminster was ever to get serious about those divides, it would have to embrace huge change to the way it works – and many civil servants and MPs are simply not prepared to countenance that.

But how sustainable is that reactionary position going forward? I can’t see how it is. To be credible on levelling up, all political parties will have to face up to that tough prior question. Or, to put it another way: you can’t pose as being tough on regional inequality if you are not prepared to be tough on the causes of regional inequality.

Of course, those causes are complex and varied. But one of the most fundamental is the UK’s political system.

As Lord Kerslake’s UK 2070 Commission observed, the UK is simultaneously one of the most regionally unbalanced countries in the OECD and most politically over-centralised. There is a causal relationship here. The hoarding of government power in one London postcode has created the conditions for a country where some places are more equal than others. But the problem is exacerbated by a system of Parliamentary democracy which does not fairly and equally represent all people and places and, consequently, has failed to break that London-centricity.

The time has come to tell it as it is: the Westminster system has created England’s North-South divide. Over centuries, it has denied us both the investment and the power to act for ourselves. And if the status quo has created the problem, it can’t, by definition, supply the solution. Successful levelling up requires nothing less than the complete rewiring of Britain.

I see two parts to this massive task.

Part one is taking power out of the Westminster system and giving all places across England more ability to be masters of their own destiny.

It is early days, granted, but there is already evidence to suggest the devolution of power to the English regions is working. For those still to be convinced, I would cite three clear reasons why the Left should get behind it more wholeheartedly.

The first is that it is bringing a new focus on the causes of inequality often neglected by Westminster and fixing basic issues, such as the quality of work, housing and transport. For instance, here in Greater Manchester, I am bringing buses back under public control and developing a plan to build 30,000 zero-carbon homes for social rent. Other Labour Mayors are doing similar things. You could say that English devolution is finally rolling back the iniquitous policies of the 1980s. It is allowing millions of people to benefit from Labour policies in advance of a Labour Government but, by showing the difference Labour in power can make, it hopefully makes the election of a Labour Government more likely.

The second reason is it gets England ready to face the challenges of the 21st century – most notably, the drive towards a net-zero society. We will never be able to legislate our way to carbon-neutrality or achieve it through top-down initiatives. If you look around the world, cities are leading the way as the early adopters of new thinking and technologies. England’s cities need the same level of autonomy as their counterpart cities around the world if we are to bring the required level of pace to the UK’s climate actions.

The third reason why English devolution is a force for good is the positive effect it is having on engaging people with politics and creating a healthier political climate. One of Westminster’s many problems is its party-first mentality. By contrast, the starting point for devolved systems at the city-region level is a place-first approach. That creates the conditions for a more positive, unifying and engaged form of politics than Westminster will ever be able to achieve.

Three compelling reasons to support the most ambitious approach to English devolution. But, on its own, will it be enough to level up England? In a word – no. To succeed, any new settlement for England’s regions needs to be reflected in new arrangements at the centre.

Devolution won’t ever work properly if Whitehall continues to hold all the cards and can threaten to call back its funding or powers whenever it chooses. If central government is to treat all areas equally, and work properly with England’s devolved administrations, it must be held to account by a Parliament that represents all people and places equally.

It is a quite unbelievable state of affairs that, in 2021, our laws are still being made by hundreds of unelected people, the vast majority of whom have their primary residence within the M25. The longer this situation is left in place, the more it calls British democracy into disrepute. How much longer will we have to wait before the second chamber is converted into a Senate of the regions and nations of the UK where all are fairly represented?

But I have come round to the view that House of Lords reform alone will not hard-wire regional equality into our political system. The Commons is part of the problem too.

In my early days as an MP, I couldn’t see this. But towards the end of my time in Westminster, I came to understand how the Parliamentary whip system hands too much power to an intrinsically London-centric civil service. In effect, the Commons is a large rubber stamp for the policies of central government departments. Of course, Ministers have the ability to shape these policies, under pressure from backbenchers. But it is surprising how few do. Once decisions are before the House, the whip system takes away the ability of MPs to organise along regional grounds and that is a real problem.

Take the forthcoming Bill that will create the legal basis for HS2 to the north of Crewe. All the rumours say the Treasury is likely to make major cut-backs on the Northern sections. We are expecting a distinctly second-rate solution for Manchester Piccadilly which will have a negative impact on connectivity across the North. In an ideal world, MPs across the North would join forces in Parliament to defeat this. But the Treasury knows this is unlikely to happen with the whip system in place and, therefore, is emboldened to continue on its age-old approach of short-changing the North.

To prevent this, the time has come to open our minds to a reform of the Commons. We need to raise the status of MPs and give them more ability to be powerful champions for their regions. One of the great weaknesses of the current first-past-the-post system is the way it focuses the minds of MPs on the hyper-local rather than the big picture. In effect, they often duplicate the functions of local councillors – which is wasteful of their time and talents but also undermining of local government. A House of Commons freed from the tyranny of the whip, and elected more proportionately with the help of regional lists, would be more likely to reflect the majority progressive opinion in the country and secure the levelling up it desperately needs.

The pandemic has shone a brutal spotlight on just how unequal our country is. And the sad truth is this: the places that have suffered the most are the same places that were the poorest in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. England’s map of poverty hasn’t changed – and that’s partly because its political system hasn’t changed. Are we in favour of levelling up or not? It is time for all political parties to decide.

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