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The Birmingham Manifesto: Miliband walks the tightrope

The Birmingham Manifesto: Miliband walks the tightrope

🕔09.Apr 2014

“It’s great to be in Birmingham… And where better to talk about Britain’s economic future than here? The city of Joseph Chamberlain. The heart of Britain’s industrial revolution. The beginning of our modern prosperity.”

Ed Miliband certainly knows how to make the right noises for us folks here at The Chamberlain Files. Our eponymous patron name checked within the opening lines of the speech: tick. An allusion to our Industrial Revolution prosperity: tick. A reference to the need to rebalance wealth and power away from London and Whitehall: double tick. It was a veritable smorgasbord of a devolution wish list.

In his Hugo Young lecture in February, Miliband presented himself as a genuine ‘devolver’ – at first glance Miliband’s speech in Birmingham yesterday suggests that he really meant it.

Miliband praised the report Lord Heseltine compiled for the government, No Stone Unturned,  promising to double the pot from Growth Fund from £10 to £20 billion. He spoke of further powers through ‘devolution deals’ in the first spending review of the next Parliament for LEPs and local authorities who worked to form combined authorities in cities and regions and met new ‘Adonis Conditions.’ Lord Adonis would also review “go further and examine every line of the spending set out by Lord Heseltine so that significantly more funding can be devolved.”

If Miliband delivers all that he has promised, the ‘Birmingham Manifesto’ will certainly be nothing short of the most radical devolution in “living memory”.

But the problem is while I was receptive to the rhetorical flourishes made by Miliband, I’m also a pedant. Granted Miliband made all the right noises about spreading prosperity out from London to the cities and regions, restoring us to our industrial revolutionary stature and devolving powers to local institutions, but essentially Labour’s proposal is “we’ll do what the Tories are currently doing, but a bit more.”

The approach appears to be a beefed up version of the city deals currently pioneered under the Coalition. So while it will be the most ‘radical devolution in living memory’ for England – and that’s to be welcomed – it’s not exactly a great boast when compared with the devolution settlement for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

It just seems all piecemeal and lacklustre. It’s not genuine devolution at this stage – it’s centralist patronage, aka they say “jump”, we say “how high?”. It whiffs of the sense of caution from traditionalists in the Treasury, or the ‘culture of contempt’ in Whitehall to which Chris Game has alluded. There is a sense that Miliband isn’t redrawing the map so much as smudging the lines a little bit.

But the optimist in me hopes this is part of the strategy Miliband needs to adopt to actually deliver greater devolution he has often lauded. As Andrew Rawnsley pointed out in the Observer, one of the five fault lines in the Labour Party is between the Centralists and Devolvers, or more acutely, between Ed and Ed.

Mr Balls not only comes from the aforementioned Treasury tradition that is cautious about loosing control of budgets, but also an Old Labour tradition that sees central government as the best means of delivering progressive ends. Perhaps Miliband’s strategy is to comfort these groups with the promise of reviews and a gradualist approach to devolution in the regions.

Moreover, on the one hand Miliband may want to devolve power away from London, to ‘redistribute the wealth’ to use the socialist mantra, but on the other Labour’s biggest challenge is also to prove its economic credibility. That’s difficult to achieve if you promise to give all the power away to those who are deemed not to have earned credibility.

These are, admittedly, difficult tightropes for Miliband to walk. All it requires is something to shake his balance, and the ambition will be lost once more.

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