Nandy: We need politics for people with skin in the game

July 20, 2023  

What is Labour’s vision for community power? Is the party serious about handing over control to local areas, and their people, if they win the next election? How do they marry this with challenges from some sections of the party about the role of the state?

Lisa Nandy, Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, delivered the keynote speech at 2023’s Stronger Things, interviewed by Jessica Studdert.


On the need for Labour’s Take Back Control Bill

Fifty years ago, the great trade unionist Jimmy Reid, in a speech called Alienation, said, “I am convinced that most people go through life without even a glimmer of what they could have contributed. That is not just a national tragedy. That is a social crime.” Well, he was right. It’s a disaster, not just for individuals and communities, but it is at the heart of this country’s current malaise.

And this is exactly what Levelling Up was supposed to respond to, not a Hunger Game-style grant system that allows a lucky few a part refund on the money that’s been taken from them to give a lick of paint to a failing high street. Not a limited transfer of powers from one group of men in Whitehall to another group of men in the Town Hall.

But a recognition, in the end, that the country can’t go on like this. Even the winners are losing. You can’t power a major economy using only a handful of people in a handful of sectors in a few corners of the country. And you can’t build a cohesive country when so many people can neither contribute to nor share in its success.

It’s why we’re calling our first flagship piece of legislation, the Take Back Control act with new powers to take ownership of land and assets through reform of compulsory purchase laws, rights for communities to be involved early in designing and developing the places we call home, not just limited rights through an archaic planning system to object after the event.

Lisa onscreen at 2023’s Stronger Things at London’s Guildhall

On an appropriate role for Westminster

The argument is not that local is good and national and global are useless. That Westminster doesn’t matter. That global systems can simply be replaced by local action.

This is an argument for a complete change of how we do our politics – to tilt power back to people who have a stake in the outcome and skin in the game, who are in it for the long haul and trying to build things that last.

For national governments to really step up and stop trying to do our job micromanaging millions of decisions that are nothing at all to do with them, in communities that they’ve never set foot in, that deeply affect the lives of people they’ll never meet, but to start doing its actual job, which is to work with like minded governments all over the world to set up, to take action on the big challenges that deeply affect us, whether it’s frequent flooding across the country as a result of inaction on climate change, or the fraud gangs that operate all over the globe that cost older people their life savings in every part of Britain. And to construct the national systems that help to create the conditions in which those that are in it for the long haul, that are trying to build and create, to feel the system pulling in behind them.

Members of the Stronger Things audience during Lisa’s speech

On how to make devolution work

How would you ensure if you were to win power nationally, you’d retain that mission to give it away? This is a question that I’ve asked a lot of people from John Prescott to Michael Heseltine, people who over the years have tried to devolve more power in one of the most centralised countries in the world, with some success, but ultimately leaving the central levers of power untouched.

Oppositions promise and governments change their minds. And the reason for that is often accountability and where accountability lies.

These structures have to be made accountable and responsive to the people that they represent. And it has to be clear who is responsible for what so that they can be held to account. Because otherwise what you end up with is a commitment to devolution that falls apart on the first failure where government ministers are being hauled into studios to explain why things have gone wrong in parts of the country over which they had no control, and the immediate instinct is to pull everything back to the center.

So often devolution in this country has been seen as a nice to have, it’s been seen as something that’s good for local communities and for regions, but not something that matters to the national agenda.

Well, I think that that argument just no longer holds. The only route out of our national crisis is to grow the economy, and that means we’ve got to bring good jobs, well paid jobs, and industry back to parts of the country that have seen relative economic decline for the last 40 years.

However much you try to uncap bankers bonuses or unleash the power of the City of London, it will never be sufficient to compensate for the lack of growth and productivity and investment that has not gone into parts of the country for far too long.

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