Dreaming of better days risks scuppering devolution’s promise

Devolution deals are imperfect, but they are part of a hard process of reform that over the long run can deliver social and economic progress

I recently put my two penn‘orth into a Twitter debate between Rob Ford of Manchester University and Andrew Adonis. The latter’s accusation was that academics overcomplicate their analysis. The former retorted that commentators often want to over-simplify issues. My argument? Both of them are right.

I’m writing this having been drawn into a debate with Martin Jones and David Etherington about their recent SPERI blog Devolution and austerity are intertwined in Sheffield City Region, which was based on the paper “Devolution and Disadvantage in the Sheffield City Region”. My concern was, and is all the more so in light of the apparent demise of the Sheffield devolution agreement, that in some circumstances analysis can overcomplicate matters and play into the politics of the issue, and indeed the country, in a way I fear we might live to regret.

The central point of Jones and Etherington’s blog (though not the original paper) is that devolution is intertwined with austerity. My counter is that (a) areas with no devolution got austerity in at least equal measure, (b) that devolution represents the potential for progress (the policy areas in which austerity is really biting are absent from the deals) and (c) that no other form of devolution was on the table.

That austerity and devolution are happening at the same time is a matter of fact. But, as I set out below and in a related article for LGC, the links between them are virtually non-existent, rendering the principal argument analytically both thin and politically problematic. It may be that the pan-Yorkshire devolution proposal has legs and that this may have implications for South Yorkshire. But that isn’t the Government’s current stance. A change in this may invalidate my third point, but the first two stand. Moreover it seems unlikely that the Government will use Yorkshire (or any other) devolution to unleash the spending power of the state in a more devolutionary and progressive way.

My views on austerity are well known. I think it has broadly failed in its own terms. Bearing down on current spending may have been a necessity but should have been accompanied by a significant expansion in the capital programme. A failure to do so has denied us both much needed infrastructure and created the conditions for yet deeper cuts in revenue spending. But the council leaders negotiating devolution deals could not have done anything to shift the devolution envelope materially and the discussions had little or nothing to do with austerity. Yet Jones and Etherington write:

“A key finding of our research is that devolution is closely linked to austerity policies and various cuts to public spending (some of these being welfare-rated).”

There is no evidence to support this assertion in the blog – nor even in their research summary. The fact is that nearly every devo deal sought to get some traction on skills and education policies in order to deliver better outcomes for the people of city regions. These are budgets still controlled from Whitehall, as the original research paper makes clear. The Government turned down requests for further devolution in these areas before negotiations even started. If anything the devolution of social policy is too underdeveloped not too entwined. So the implication that devolution is part of these cuts is simply not true.

Politics really is the art of the possible. That is what the devo deals are delivering. We can argue about whether they were imperfect and watch and pick as some of them fall apart, or we can build the way social progress generally is achieved: step by painful step.

I think it is really important that this debate is seen in the context of the haemorrhaging British polity. The sentiment of the argument – that a better alternative existed, advocated by Jones and Etherington in their blog – finds succour among those in the hard left part of the Labour Party. By that I don’t mean the millions of politically hungry and largely younger people who have been energised by the idea of a different kind of politics, but those in that wing of the Labour Party who have generally been as keen on revolution as reform.

The divide which exists in the Labour Party (which arguably remains the principal voice of progressive politics in England) has become starker of late. Political theory (and the choice generally made across the left that reform rather than revolution is the route to progress) provides a more rigorous view than the oft-used line that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism. But it leads to the same point.

The focal point of progressive politics of most kinds, influenced by these and other currents has been reformism: of arguing that democratic politics should be used to achieve economic and social progress step by step. Devolution was and is an exercise in the same. Seeking to argue that it is a part of the less welcome policy of austerity is not just wrong, but risks weakening the legitimacy of already heavily-burdened local governance, as it implies that there was a plausible, better alternative. It contends that local authorities entering into devo deals have in some way sold out and assumed the burden of culpability for the Government’s austerity programme. This is true neither in practice nor principle. Devolution can happen in good times as well as more difficult ones, as we saw in London and the devolved nations: both implemented in times of relative plenty.

So devolution can be, was and is part of a form of process of economic and social progress. Nothing in the English evidence and experience suggests otherwise. It is vital that researchers and analysts alike are clear where they (and we) are straying away from data and evidence into opinion and uncertainty. My concern is that the blog strayed without being clear on the matter. The danger here is comparable to the risk Nigel Farage and the Brexit Ultras are arguing in relation to the next steps on Europe: making demands of a system they know very well can’t meet it, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the whole system. It is also what the hard left used to do: making ‘transitional demands’. This is an issue across the political spectrum in which the role of academia is of critical importance and in which the appropriate use of evidence is vital.

In the situation as it greeted local council leaders post-2015, if the authors of the article really believe leaders should have done better in the negotiation with central government, without sacrificing the measure of self-determination offered by devolution, they should say so. If they believe that the Government used devolution as a fig leaf, fine. The argument that the identity politics of the Sheffield City Region were more complicated than the process allowed for is also clearly right. But the implication throughout that there was a better deal and that what was on offer was entwined with austerity is at odds with the facts. So why leave readers with that impression?

A reply to this post by Martin Jones and David Etherington will be published later this week

Mike Emmerich is a former CEO of New Economy in Manchester, having previously been Director of the Institute for Political and Economic Governance at the University of Manchester and a Senior Civil Servant in the No 10 Policy Unit and at HM Treasury. He is a member of the Policy Committee of the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE and a Member of the Research Committee of the ESRC.

A shortened version of this blog was published in the Local Government Chronicle