Labour Must Urgently Engage with the Regions if it is to Recover from its Defeat
The former Labour MP for Wrexham – a seat snatched by the Conservatives in the General Election – believes it is an indictment of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership that his frontbench did not engage effectively with the regions.
Amid the carnage of the General Election result, Labour must, immediately, start thinking. One of the urgent areas of necessary action is Labour’s regional policy, stalled since 2010.
The Conservatives have been rewarded for being more imaginative and active in developing a form of devolution within England which Labour has conspicuously failed to do since 2010.
Though the main area of immediate attention will be the impact of Brexit, the Conservatives have also been active across England in developing growth deals, adding to their establishment of metropolitan mayors in the major urban conurbations. They have also been sufficiently imaginative to set up growth deals in the devolved nations, giving a focus for their MPs there, where they are in opposition. Although Labour retains mayoral positions through national figures such as Andy Burnham, Dan Jarvis and Steve Rotherham, the Conservative Government and its regional MPs retain influence through their financial control of growth deals.
The candidates for the Labour leadership need to be creative in this policy area in a way in which Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn never were.
They should start by pressing the new Conservative administration to reintroduce an underrated initiative first introduced by Gordon Brown’s Government. Regional ministers in the House of Commons, held to account by regional select committees, can be a creative policy initiative which Labour can propose as the Opposition. They also cost virtually nothing.
As a Business Minister before 2010, I worked with effective regional ministers to rebuild regional economies after the world financial crisis. They were an effective link to regional economies, highly regarded by wealth creators in the regions, as they were a direct link through to central government. They can work with metro mayors and, importantly, local government in those town and rural areas which do not have mayoral representation.
At present, the Conservative Government has created a patchwork of regional ministers, with very little direct accountability to the House of Commons and excluding large swathes of the country from direct, regional ministerial representation.
If it exerts pressure on the Conservative Government to remedy this, Labour could, finally, steal a march on the Tories in the early days of this Parliament by proposing them, perhaps in the context of a Labour leadership contest. Both Lisa Nandy and Yvette Cooper, working respectively through the Centre for Towns group and the Labour Towns group, have recognised the issues relating to the exclusion of non-metropolitan regional areas and the alienation those communities feel.
It is an indictment of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership that, in my experience, his frontbench failed to engage with these groups and these issues.
Such Parliamentary groups, especially if they become formal select committees, could be very effective. As MP for Wrexham until this year’s General Election, I established the cross-party, cross-border All Party Parliamentary Group of MPs for North Wales and Mersey/Dee in 2015. The response from that unique, geographical area was a high level of engagement with the devolved Welsh Assembly, from universities – a crucial driver of regional economic growth – and from business, all of which were very anxious to engage with Parliament and Government. I am confident that other areas across the UK would react in the same way.
This work will, of course, now take place in the context of the UK leaving the EU. The previous Tory Government proposed a ‘regional prosperity fund’ to replace European Union structural funding but scant detail of its substance was ever revealed. Its detail is now crucial to the development of post-EU regional policy. It will doubtless be a battleground between the devolved governments and the UK Government and regional representatives be they mayors, council leaders or MPs.
Expectations are high in the regions and much political focus will be on how the Conservative Government will use the apparent financial proceeds generated by Brexit.
The Labour Opposition needs, in a long overdue process, to devise a coherent, effective set of proposals for the regions and, at the same time, hold the Tory Government to account over its promises to those who live there.