Labour strategists will no doubt be patting themselves on the back after a successful party conference, in which Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves built on their increasingly confident rhetoric on the party’s proposals for government.
One clear takeaway from Labour’s annual gathering is that the party has spotted a political opportunity in the Government’s ailing levelling up agenda. Keir Starmer took the opportunity to denounce the Government’s progress on their flagship domestic policy during his speech, stating that ‘as soon as they counted their votes, they turned their back’ on the levelling up agenda. Reading between the lines of Starmer and Reeves’ speeches as well as remarks made across the conference fringe circuit from MPs and shadow ministers, it is clear the party sought to use their conference to dial up their rhetoric around a ’new localism’. Given today’s tight fiscal environment and the party’s hesitance to increase spending, Labour’s new localism - sitting at the intersection of planning reform, devolution, regional policy, and industrial strategy – seems likely to be a core component of the party’s economic programme for government.
But policy details remain light. Perhaps this is evidence of the iron message discipline that the party has worked relentlessly to cultivate. Yet there remains a huge gap between bold political rhetoric around ‘delivering growth in every part of the country’, and a practical, tangible plan, to deliver it.
This is not to suggest that there is a dearth of ideas within the party. There was no shortage of lively discussion on the role that greater devolution could play in helping Labour achieve its central mission of higher growth, as well as delivering an active industrial strategy, and broader reform of public services. Many of the party’s councillors, MPs, and shadow ministers, speaking largely across the fringe circuit, demonstrated proficiency in their understanding of the policy detail. Labour’s metro mayors are also growing in stature within the party, not least due to their ability to showcase a growing repository of information on how to strengthening local economies from which the national party can learn.
Soon enough the party leadership will need to move their new localist agenda from rhetoric to reality, and begin to spell out a broader, more concrete policy programme. As ever, the devil is in the detail. But there are two questions that Labour’s policy programme will need to satisfy in order to gain credibility.
The first, while perhaps the easiest, is the most important for developing a coherent plan for government: to what extent do the party's plans for local institutions reconcile with their 'big picture' thinking on national economic policy, particularly around industrial strategy and public service reform? To give one example - how might the party's plans to give every local area greater powers to develop 'new local growth plans' feed into its broader industrial strategy?
The second will help us gauge the scale of Labour’s ambition in government: to what extent will they overcome the deep structural challenges that disempower local areas? The party’s proposals for local government finance reform, and appetite for greater fiscal devolution, are perhaps a helpful litmus test for this. Since Labour’s conference, Starmer has stated his intention to lengthen funding settlements for local authorities, demonstrating an awareness of some of the challenges local leaders face. But the party could, and should, go much further.
The groundswell of support for devolution is only growing, with recent polling showing the majority of the public supports it. It is also one of the policy areas where the Conservatives have made ground, particularly with the introduction of trailblazer deals in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. The Labour leadership may have left Liverpool happy to have had no battles break out across the party. But with an election likely within the next year, it is the right time to reach out widely across the party to develop and articulate a more concrete version for how they would go further, and faster, on devolution, particularly on how local government will feed into the party’s wider mission framework for government.
Ross Mudie is research analyst at the Centre for Progressive Policy