How will city devolution change the politics of Britain?

21 Jan 16

The creation of city mayors could change some of the fundamental dynamics of British governance by presenting an alternative to Westminster

New Oldham West and Royton MP Jim McMahon made headlines this week when he dedicated part of his maiden speech in the House of Commons to setting out his concerns over the government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative, and in particular, city region devolution deals. This was a striking intervention given McMahon’s previous role on the LGA, and, of course, as a leading local politician within Greater Manchester – the city region at the forefront of devolution from central government.

Many have attempted to portray McMahon’s speech as a departure for someone previously in support of devolution – the sort of move cynics might expect from a politician making the journey from local to national politics. But those who have followed the MP’s career more closely know that this is not a fair reflection, and that even when the Greater Manchester deal was being negotiated, McMahon was voicing his concerns regarding the scope of the powers on offer, and the process that was being undertaken.

Whether you agree with McMahon or not – and clearly many of his former Labour party colleagues within Greater Manchester do not – his intervention shows yet again that British politics, and the role and profile of all major national parties, is likely to change as the country becomes more devolved.

In the short term, such changes will be felt most keenly within the Labour Party. As Labour MPs stare down the barrel of at least another four years in opposition, the party nevertheless remains in power across much of urban Britain, including the biggest cities outside of London. As Nick Forbes, leader of Newcastle City Council, has stated this week, council leaders are already striving to implement Labour policies at the local level with the limited power that they have, and in those city-regions that have secured a devolution deal, their capacity to do so in the future stands to be strengthened. One suspects that most of Labour’s biggest achievements in the next Parliament will be won at the local, not the national, level.

For the Conservatives, the political impact of devolution is more likely to be felt over the long term. Despite the current difficulties facing the Labour party, it should not be forgotten that the government has a very slender majority, and their first in 23 years. To consolidate their hold on power at the national level, the Conservatives must make some progress in urban seats across the North of England in future elections. Doing so would be significantly easier if the party could build a stronger organisational base locally and, as we have seen in the last two London Mayoral elections, it is possible for the party to win such contests in a traditional Labour heartland. Over time the hope will be that the introduction of new city region mayors presents the party with an opportunity to secure a foothold in those urban constituencies it has struggled to win in for so long.

Of course devolution will present major challenges to the established parties too. The issue itself has exposed divisions within the parliamentary parties of both the Conservatives and Labour, but the long-term impact could be more profound still. The creation of city region mayors means there will be a new tier of more powerful local politicians, backed by bigger mandates than either local council leaders or constituency MPs. Individually, this could cause tensions between politicians of the same party making it harder to unite around a common position, particularly in a context where major public service functions – such as health or education – are devolved, and local politicians pursue a different agenda to the national policy platform. Working together, these new more powerful local politicians could form a significant lobby group – a league of city region mayors – to put pressure on the government of the day and other political parties as they develop their policy positions.

Devolution, therefore, has the capacity to change some of the fundamental dynamics of British politics. While Jim McMahon chose to take the step from local to national politics last year, it is significant that Sadiq Kahn and Zac Goldsmith are now vying to make the opposite journey and become Mayor of London. This, together with the experience of Boris Johnson over the last eight years, suggests that in the future, the national stage may cease to be the ‘be all and end all’ of British politics. Or, at the very least, running a major city will be seen as a better way to advance a political career than hanging around the backbenches of the Commons, or spending a Parliament in opposition.

And if this leads to more competitive, more engaging and, most importantly, more effective city leadership, then that would be good news for urban economies across the country.


A version of this blog first appeared on the Centre for Cities website

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