Local and devolved powers show an alternative to austerity economics

KEN LIVINGSTONE writes on the importance of devolution – and using devolved powers for progressive ends

THROUGHOUT my spells in London government, I always sought to use whatever powers and resources we had in order to make the biggest difference possible for the majority of residents.

Whether it was giving public transport the investment it was crying out for and ensuring that it was a common-sense, affordable option or backing initiatives for social equality, we were committed to making the most out of the office voters had put us in.

As well as implementing popular progressive policies, those of us involved in the Greater London Council also saw it as incumbent upon us to use our platform to support important causes, such as placing the unemployment figures of the Thatcher era on a billboard by County Hall, or championing justice in Ireland — a tradition I continued as mayor by declaring London a city of peace in response to the Iraq war.

Today, we are once again faced with a Tory government that has completely failed to address the issues affecting the lives of millions of people across the country in any kind of meaningful way.

Combine this with an opposition front bench which — when not checking for reds under the bed — seems to be determined to distance itself from any proposals which remotely measure up to the scale of the crisis, and it’s understandable that increasing numbers are looking to local and devolved administrations for an alternative.

Certainly, there is a much greater openness to a bold policy agenda in many council chambers than Westminster (albeit this is not exactly a high bar!)

Preston’s use of community wealth-building to ensure that the benefits of local economic growth are felt by all residents has attracted international attention, while here in London Islington Council has successfully taken housing developers to court and pioneered schemes such as providing free wifi for young people in the borough leaving the care system.

The fact that Labour went from winning its first seat on Worthing Council in more than four decades in 2017 to taking control last year on a manifesto along similar lines to these examples shows that this kind of platform has a strong appeal outside of traditional “heartland” areas — and the fate of the party in Tower Hamlets illustrates what can happen when communities are taken for granted.

Wales under the leadership of Mark Drakeford has offered a glimpse of what can be achieved on a larger scale. Adopting measures such as the scrapping of “right to buy” in relation to housing and trialling schemes for ideas including a universal basic income using care leavers, it has undoubtedly stood in the tradition of offering “clear red water” between itself and what is being offered on a Britain-wide scale.

In the words of Senedd member Jack Sargeant: “One of the keys to Welsh Labour’s continued success is its combination of boldness and Welshness … we have seen the struggles of the party elsewhere in the country when it has been framed as just a local branch.”

Additionally, in my own old role as mayor of London, an incumbent by no means from the socialist left tradition of the Labour Party in Sadiq Khan has increasingly seemed more willing to offer positive change than the national leadership — announcing proposals to ensure all primary pupils in the capital are entitled to free school meals and prioritising the delivery of new affordable homes.

It was also noteworthy that Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram, mayors of the Greater Manchester and Liverpool City regions respectively, jointly wrote an open letter to Labour’s NEC opposing the exclusion of Jamie Driscoll from the longlist of prospective candidates to stand and next year’s election for North East mayor (a position Driscoll himself lobbied for the creation of).

Acknowledging having “seen first hand the good work he has done” as North Tyne mayor, the letter argues that he “deserves to be treated with more respect than he has so far been shown.”

Driscoll used his position to implement a regional version of the Green New Deal, creating a fund to support projects which create jobs in areas which can help bring down carbon emissions.

As well as boosting this with the funding offered by the new role, he would seek to deliver full employment and a new agenda for transport, with buses taken under public control and free travel for under-18s.

Despite these achievements, the leadership is seeking to shut down his candidacy (a situation I have had some experience of myself!).

Of course, all of these examples have their limitations in an era where local and devolved government has had its powers and resources severely depleted.

But models that, to whatever extent, make a positive impact on local communities and show that an alternative to austerity economics is far from a pipe dream, deserve to be defended.

As the cost-of-living crisis makes their work all the more important, the left should both defend progressive administrations in the face of cuts and anti-democratic manoeuvring: and offer a vision for what could be achieved without these restraints.

This article originally appeared in The Morning Star