Jim McMahon MP, Shadow Minister for Local Government and Devolution
Labour & Cooperative Member of Parliament for Oldham West and Royton
It was a pleasure to address Voluntary Sector North West’s annual conference earlier this month at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. In thirteen years as a councillor and a year now as an MP, I have seen firsthand the difference that can be made by local people coming together to make their area a better place. The voluntary and community sector plays a vital role in making that happen.
I have also heard firsthand on the doorstep, ahead of the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, the sense that many ordinary people consider established politics to be an elite, distant and disempowering affair to which they cannot relate. People want and need a stake and a say in the way their society is organised. Too many people feel that they lack that voice. We need to address, not dismiss, this profound and prevailing sense of democratic deficit. Our centralist settlement currently leaves people feeling powerless. The voluntary and community sector, properly supported and mobilised, can help to fill that gap.
For devolution to be meaningful, it can’t just mean power passed down from Whitehall to the Town Hall: it needs to be passed down further still to communities themselves. Those communities can better exercise that power if they are well organised. The voluntary and community sector organises communities on the ground better than anyone else. So, part of the point of devolution must be to empower civil society, rather than hoarding power in the market or the state. Accordingly, the voluntary sector is absolutely right to look to harness devolution to give communities more of a say in the decisions that affect the lives of them and their families. The sector should be insistent in its demands to help shape devolution deals as they are struck and as they then unfold.
We all want to tackle poverty and reduce inequality. The best way to do that is to support more people into decent work. But a national, one-size-fits-all approach to helping people from welfare into work has failed. Devolution offers the best hope of a skills and employment offer that is tailored to the local job market and there is growing evidence that such an approach delivers results. In Oldham, the council has stepped in to fill the gap created by national contracted providers, supporting people into work. The council don’t receive any central government funding for this but they decided they weren’t willing to sit back while so many fell through the net. In just two years, over 3,000 people have been helped into work and a genuine partnership has been created with businesses, community organisations and the public services working together. When BHS closed and the shutters came down, as Sir Philip Green sailed off into the sunset, it was thanks to Get Oldham Working that every employee who wanted a new job had one lined up.
But Oldham also knows when to let go to, as was evident in the establishment of the Oldham Action Fund which benefited from a transfer of charitable trusts and historic dowries which brought together almost £1m of funding together for local voluntary and community sector groups to invest in long-term, sustainable funding.
It is true though that much of the discussion of devolution to date has been primarily economistic in character. That, to be honest, is a failing in our current politics in general. The voluntary and community sector is well placed to highlight the social dimension of devolution, deploying as it can the testimony of community members’ lived experience. People need to hear the stories and understand the relationships that matter, rather than forever merely looking at the graphs.
We rightly hear a lot about the pressing challenge of economic inequality in the world around us today. But the challenge posed by democratic inequality is no less stark. People do need money in their pockets, but they also need to feel that they have some influence over the environments in which they lead their lives. A cooperative approach to devolution, supporting the voluntary and community sector, offers the opportunity to level the playing field of our democracy.
We need to agree a compelling new settlement and give a greater voice to the people we came into politics to represent. And so, with any discussion on devolution, we must be open to new partnerships and, rather than see it simply as a transfer of responsibilities, we ought to see it as an opportunity to redefine how we govern, how we grow our economies and how we deliver the best possible public services. Devolution ought to mean politics done with people, not just for them. And that means we need you and the communities you help organise and empower together with us in the driving seat.