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England is restless, change is coming

The Labour MP and senior shadow cabinet member calls for a constitutional convention to wrest power from the UK's unaccountable, neoliberal elite.

Labour politician Jon Trickett speaks to the media outside the Institute of Engineering in London in 2017 Labour politician Jon Trickett speaks to the media outside the Institute of Engineering in London in 2017. Image: Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images.

This article is based on the speech given to IPPR London on 14 May 2018 and includes some of Jon Trickett’s answers in the discussion. 

My purpose today is to make a big argument about the state of politics in England. Namely, without radical devolution we are not going to achieve social justice.

I’m pleased to be speaking here at IPPR as recently you produced an important report describing the emergence of Englishness as a political force.

You were correct to begin a conversation about England. There is a restlessness here. A mounting dissatisfaction which ‘Little Englander’ politics has attempted to colonise. I am going to set out why their narrow message fundamentally misunderstands what is happening. 

Failing economics together with centralisation of power has done untold damage not only to the poorest but also to middle England. This should never have happened. The introduction of universal suffrage a century ago should have secured majority rule, whilst protecting minority rights. Back then, in 1921, Kipling wrote about the class structure in England:

Our England is a garden, and such gardens are not made

By singing “Oh How wonderful” and sitting in the shade

While better men than we go out and start their working lives

By grubbing weeds from garden paths with broken dinner knives

A century later, that class divide remains deep and is getting worse.

We have just learnt from Mr Murdoch’s Sunday Times that the richest 1000 people are currently worth £724 billion. In 2009 they were worth £258 billion. This means that since the financial crash the wealth of the richest 1,000 has increased by £466 BILLION. Whilst according to the TUC the average worker will have lost £18,500 in income since 2010.

The Equality Trust calculated that in 2017, the UK’s richest 1,000 saw the value of their wealth increase by the equivalent of £226 million a day, and they were worth more in financial terms than the poorest 40 per cent of the population. The result: four million children living in households in poverty, with another million predicted in the coming years. 

Most people think that if you put something into the community, if you work hard and play by the rules then you ought to be able to get on in life. It's not much to expect is it? But in too many communities people feel that they are screwed over by a system which doesn’t work for them. 

Beyond economic inequality something is else happening. For many, the sense of community, of purpose, of who we are, and of the place we inhabit, is so disrupted that the future now feels more dangerous than the past.

The commentators say - especially since Brexit - that such communities have been “left behind”. The phrase suggests it is the fault of local areas.  It implies that communities like my own are not ‘keeping up’. That is not right. In fact they are being actively held back. Held back by a system which denies too many a choice or even a voice in their own future.

For many, globalisation feels like the country is on a runaway train moving at breakneck speed to an unknown destination. Meanwhile, many of the passengers are occupying carriages which have been - maybe deliberately - decoupled from the engine and careering off in an entirely different direction.

When speaking about England, Orwell said that we “are like a family; with the wrong members in charge.” Certainly, today there is a cultural gulf between the charmed circle which rules and the wider population. These are people who have no or little understanding of the English communities which they govern. And this leads to bad decisions.

The more perceptive commentators have understood this. Amol Rajan, the Media Editor of the BBC, said that there is a “disconnect between journalism and the lives of poor people around Britain. Journalism today feels more like the preserve of the moneyed and metropolitan middle-classes than ever before.” He could have been describing not simply journalists but the whole of the closed elite circle. Robert Peston the commentator said: “It turns out that I have not been living in the United Kingdom, but in a privileged bubble.” Not one person in his close family and circle of acquaintances had voted with the majority for Brexit.

This charmed circle is described as London-centric but only a certain part of London. Jon Snow, reflecting on the shock which many felt at the events at Grenfell a few miles away from Channel 4 HQ, admitted that “He and others in the media had become too far removed from ordinary people”.

The ruling elite have not just allowed the very poorest to sink. They have also lost their connection with the rest of Britain too. Whilst the Tories cut corporation tax and failed to act on tax avoidance, they imposed huge cuts to public services on which we all rely. People who pay their taxes are outraged that for the richest and the multinationals there is an entirely different set of tax arrangements. As I have already mentioned, The Sunday Times Rich list shows with great clarity, an extraordinary explosive growth of the wealth of the richest.

The point I want to emphasise here is that while this effects everyone across Britain the ruling elite has lost touch with the English especially.

The traditional Tory sensitivity to the market towns and county towns in England is now largely lost.

I live in a village in the heart of England which is rapidly becoming a sprawling township as a result of uncontrolled house building. It felt like nobody consulted us. Planning processes have become so distorted in favour of developers that the powers of local councils, to reflect community views, have all but gone. And this is happening everywhere.

Of course we need more housing. We aren’t NIMBY’s. We want development. But these houses aren’t for local people who are priced out.  And the style of construction pays no heed at all to the local architectural vernacular. So what is unique about our village is gradually being lost. Dormitory homes built on an identical design with bog-standard materials are turning the area into the ubiquitous identikit community, like those which are spreading out everywhere. And when the same old supermarkets move in and the independent traders move out of every high street, the sense of local identity is lost in favour of betting shops, charity shops and sometimes even no shops at all.  

The English middle classes in the towns, villages and suburbs across England, were once the part of the country colonised by the Tories. Now, however, they are facing crippling debts from tuition fees, a dysfunctional housing market, and rising living costs.

Many of the country’s national assets - gas, electricity, water have been sold off. There has been public outcry not just at their foreign ownership but to profits going to asset strippers, rising prices and worsening services. I could go on but you get the message.

The remedies to all this need not be backward looking or based on a nostalgia for a past mythical grandeur. Nor does it mean withdrawing into a version old imperial English exceptionalism or disengaging from the world. It does however mean putting an end to rising inequality, austerity and to neoliberalism. This has gone farther in England than almost anywhere else.

The social and economic exclusion of millions in England is about the mal-distribution of power and wealth. It is also shaped by a cultural insensitivity. And these exclusions are spatially organised. The geographic dimension is crucial to understanding what is happening in England.

So poor has been the investment in the regions outside London that in effect the regional economies have been decoupled from the London economy. The consequences are self-evident: the fall of productivity and low wages. Regional economies chronically and acutely weakened.

Think of the post-industrial communities covering vast geographical swathes and home to millions of people in England. Regions like the North, the East of England, and the South West. Areas that depended on mining, shipbuilding, fishing, textiles. And then there are the seaside resorts and countless smaller communities, the towns and villages as well as many poorer rural areas. The impoverished parts of London and the South East too.

Bowing down to globalisation has led to a focus almost exclusively on the finance sector and sunrise industries, located most often in the major cities and a very few other growth nodes elsewhere. The rest of England has been neglected by a policy agenda which has little to offer it.

We can't go on like this.

Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn we are challenging the current economic consensus.  Of course there must be some fiscal rebalancing. But we will not increase taxes for the 95%. Equally, and perhaps more important, we will drive up productivity by increasing investment and we will create a new ministry to tackle the injustices within the labour market. But in addition to the fiscal, economic and industrial rebalancing we need a transformative politics, a democratic revolution which gives both voice and choice to all the communities which make up the country.

Let me be clear about the importance of this. We need change from the bottom up and that was why I was the first person, and only Shadow Cabinet Member, to nominate Jeremy for the leadership. We have three interconnected pillars to our approach. Firstly, to challenge the economic orthodoxy and build a new economy to work for all. Second, we want to establish a new place for Britain in the world. And thirdly we need to totally change our political structures which are skewed in favour of the ruling elite. Nothing less than and democratic transformation will do.

It is plain that the Tories vaguely understand that there is a problem with the way the country is governed. Perhaps they sensed the dangers as they lost touch in the way I’ve mentioned. Their response has been to redouble the centralisation that generates the problem. In order to preserve their privilege they have simply pulled up the drawbridge and then mounted a series of attacks on the basic principles of democracy itself. They have sought to silence anyone who could criticise them.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this but let’s recall that they:

  • Have attacked local government every year;
  • Have imposed a top down Mayoral models, against the wishes of the people, on many of the larger cities whilst offering little to the smaller cities, and towns which make up so much of England;
  • Have Introduced the Lobbying Act which legitimises the access of Big Money to key decision makers, but has had a freezing effect on the charities, campaign groups, voluntary bodies, trades unions and even some church groups;
  • Have set up an unprecedented arrangement with the DUP not based on political principle, but on a grubby £1 billion deal whilst continuing to impose austerity in England;
  • Have sought to appropriate all EU powers to Ministers, hoping to evade Parliamentary scrutiny rather than devolving those powers to Britain's regions and nations;
  • Have even stopped voting in opposition days in the Commons and brazenly established the principle that when they lose such votes they are entitled to ignore them, casting aside the importance of parliament itself.

This is not just a retreat of power into unaccountability.

The problem is that we were taught that we are ruled of, by and for the majority, but when so many communities’ needs are ignored then a politically dangerous situation arises.

Our democracy is under siege by right-wing populists who would destroy and eradicate our country’s progressive traditions. This can only exacerbate an already difficult situation.

I am a politician. My purpose is not to develop scholarly analysis but to bring about progressive change - and to defeat the siren calls of the right. So let me set out how I think we have to respond to this assault upon democracy.

Some people think that all we need is an English Parliament. I am not convinced. It would not tackle the problem of over-centralisation with key decision making still monopolised by an uncomprehending power elite based largely in its tiny London enclave. And in any event the size of England, with over 80% of the British population would produce such an asymmetrical arrangement vis a vis Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it would not be a stable long term solution.

 So, first we need to renew our democracy at the centre to curb the power of wealth and privilege. Which means we will go well beyond modernising the House of Lords, though this is a task which needs to be undertaken. 

An early step will be to clean up political funding to cut the capacity of high value donors to exercise inappropriate levels of influence. Thereby exacerbating an already unacceptable aggregation of power at the centre.  Remember the 35 of the richest 100 people donate to the Tory party. With a collective wealth of £108 billion, they have donated almost £20m to the Tories.

These are the ones we know about. Rich donors can and do funnel donations anonymously through third parties such as related individuals, companies or unincorporated associations. We will consult further on our ideas of how to tackle this matter in due course.

Second, we would abolish the Lobbying Act, ending the easy access to power of Big Money. The Tories used the Lobbying Act to diminish civil society down to the Victorian idea of charitable giving. But our voluntary sector is an essential part of the fabric of English community life, enabling the powerless or those who have been held back to create an alternative vision and make their voices heard.

We will remove the Tory shackles on civil society. If it makes life more difficult for those who hold power, so be it. It is long past the time the voices of ordinary people were heard.

Third, we will empower communities. For too long the “held back” regions, the towns and other areas which lie at the heart of England have had no say, their voices have rarely been heard and they have been locked out of the new economy. “Held back” areas are not some distant archipelago consisting of a few small islands of deprivation.

Take Yorkshire, a county with a larger population than Scotland. So lacking in investment that you have to work for 16 years to deliver the same value in output as is achieved in a single year by a worker in the City. In Yorkshire we have:

  • A quarter of a million children in poverty;
  • 109,000 jobs public sector jobs gone;
  • Our councils worse off by £359 per household per year;
  • And our schools receive £1,000 per child less than they do in London.

Our Yorkshire market towns, as well as the smaller villages, do not even figure in the government’s agenda. Instead they wanted a top down imposition of City regions run by Metro Mayors.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the big cities. I grew up in Leeds and eventually became its leader. Nobody could have been prouder.  It never occurred to me though that we should have dominion over Bradford, Wakefield, Huddersfield or the villages in the Dales. Incredibly, this is what the Tories have wanted.

All this is why a new government which intends to radically redistribute power in England will return local control over the future by enhancing the community capacity for voice and the exercise of choice. We should have great faith in local initiatives. We would quickly see the emergence of a new generation of exciting experiments in municipal socialism, building on existing best practice in local government.

 These and other steps can and will be taken early in the course of an incoming Labour Government. But if we are to change the political structures, more fundamentally transformative steps will be needed. For these to be effective they will need to be based on a consensus about the way forward.

Now, Labour has committed itself to setting up regional development banks to drive through much needed financial support to regional economies. There will be a national framework within which these banks will operate, but it cannot be the case that their activities will be directed solely from London. Therefore new regional political arrangements will emerge in order to provide a locally determined frameworks for these banks’ activities. In Yorkshire, for example, I strongly believe that this should take the form of a devolved system which covers the whole county. 

In my personal view, we will end up with substantial regional devolution in the whole of England.  In my mind all of this will lead to the emergence through time of a Federal Britain which will be stronger and fairer as a consequence.

The Labour Manifesto committed us to look at “extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally, considering the option of a more federalised country”.

Of course, Scotland and Wales are separate nations and cannot be equated with the English regions. But clearly they have the opportunity to mitigate against the worst effects of the Thatcherite settlement, something that is not available in England’s held back areas. In Scotland the SNP government haven’t done anywhere near enough. And a Labour administration led by Richard Leonard using perhaps enhanced powers of the Scottish Parliament would more effectively resist the tide of neoliberalism.

Our over-centralised state has failed to deliver a socially just country. And anyway the zeitgeist is strongly in the direction of communities seeking to take power into their own hands. All of this will need a deep conversation. People are heartily sick of things being done to them rather than by them or for them.

This is why Jeremy Corbyn has committed our party to a Constitutional Convention to discuss the way forward. This will have to be done carefully and with much thought. We do not know when the next election will be, but I would like to make progress as soon as possible.  

The convention will be a complex thing to achieve, but I’m convinced it won’t work unless there is the widest possible public involvement. 

There have already been two mini-experiments with a convention type process in the UK recently, in Sheffield and Southampton. However, both were very costly. 

Where this journey will take us and exactly what emerges cannot be known in advance. I am convinced that there is progressive country waiting to be born. One that has hope for the future. Tolerant and free of prejudice. Egalitarian and outward looking. Where the regions and nations can come together on a new basis.

But it will take political change here in England to address the specific restlessness I spoke of at the beginning. What is clear is that the change that is needed can’t be achieved within the existing arrangements.

One thing is certain. As Jeremy recently remarked: “Change is coming”.

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