Labour has struggled to articulate a response to George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse since its inception in June 2014. At first, Labour figures dismissed the idea as an electoral gimmick – Lord Prescott claimed the Chancellor’s announcement was “about getting the northern vote” – but it soon became clear that the concept was more than a PR exercise.
As the Treasury began negotiating devolution deals with northern city regions, Labour civic leaders across the north (many of whom are long-standing supporters of devolution) signed up to the process. The incentive to co-operate was strengthened when the Conservatives won the 2015 general election, ending the prospect of a Labour government until 2020 at the earliest. The pragmatic approach taken by Labour councils was exhibited in September 2015, when council leaders and mayors from across the north joined George Osborne on a trip to China to promote inward investment in northern infrastructure.
In Westminster, however, Labour has no such incentive to co-operate. As the party in opposition, Labour’s role is to challenge the government and offer contrasting views. Consequently, Jeremy Corbyn has attacked the Northern Powerhouse, dismissing it as “a cruel deception”. If this is the stance of the Labour leadership, it must also accept that it is a “deception” that has taken in its own leaders in local government.
This dissonance between Labour’s regional and national interest was highlighted when former Oldham council leader Jim McMahon was elected to parliament in a December 2015 by election. In local government, he signed a deal with the Treasury to commit Oldham to the Greater Manchester devolution deal. However, he used his maiden speech in parliament to attack the devolution deal and express “deep unease” at the plans. This reportedly generated a furious reaction from his former colleagues in local government.
Labour’s difficulties in responding to the Chancellor’s devolution plan have left the public unsure of Labour’s stance on devolution. This may cause the party problems as it contests a number of close elections in northern local authorities such as Calderdale, Trafford and Kirklees this May.