There are a number of norms the government has sacrificed or put on hold in order to tackle the pandemic. The recent struggle over local lockdowns between councils and the Johnson Administration underlines the latest norm at risk of being eroded. The norm of devolution and metro mayors is being stress tested by this pandemic and since March, central government has governed at the expense of this constitutional feature.
Rather than work constructively with local councils who best understand the dire situations their communities are facing, Government has either handed down nationwide dictums irrespective of the local situation, or blackmailed local leaders to agree to local measures without the necessary support that should accompany measures that will seriously disrupt the economy and society.
The Tories were once the party that championed local metro mayors and decentralising power, a cornerstone of liberal philosophy which motivated the Cameron Administrations. The policy has seen great success bringing metro mayors to many regional hubs, allowing government to be bought closer to the people.
The decision this current government has taken to flagrantly ignore the concerns and legitimacy of locally elected leaders should be a cause for concern. It not only handicaps good policy making during this ongoing crisis, but imperils the very fabric of the Union, both between the 4 nations and internal pressures between the regions. So much for ‘levelling up’ the north, it tramples on the institutions designed to empower the regions it now ignores.
Central government cannot write policy for 66 million people, especially during a pandemic which is affecting communities unequally. Westminster’s shift from a national, to a more local approach should in theory be applauded. It demonstrates a better understanding of the situation and an avoidance of draconian measures in places where a full lockdown would do far more harm than good. However, the government does not seem to be engaging with local leaders in good faith.
The political struggle that has unfolded between Westminster and Manchester demonstrates a disinterest among the national government to trust the local administrations. The very party which rolled out the metro mayor system to many communities is now failing to trust the constitutional institutions they established. The Government has reverted to its natural instinct of centralism. This undermines efforts to combat coronavirus and violates the principle of letting local communities govern themselves in their own interest.
In the short term, this hostility to localism has hampered efforts to roll out local restrictions which might save lives. It is not unreasonable that when government takes action which threatens business and society, people are compensated and supported through this tough time. The government, not willing to compromise with local leaders who know best how these measures will tear apart peoples livelihoods., risks lives and destroying public trust in any policy they may eventually impose on local communities.
The problems spiral from here. Flagrantly trampling on the spirit of localism threatens to decay support in the structures that govern the UK. Scenes like the ones seen outside Bridgewater Hall on Monday make the Johnson Administration look like it doesn’t even want to engage with local government. Once again, the communications strategy has been bungled by Downing Street, galvanising public support against the government. In a similar vein, this ineptitude in public messaging might explain the surge in recent support for Scottish independence, with Westminster seeming to be willingly hostile to the governments who don’t follow their line.
This strategy to not concede ground to regional and local government, and a failure to look like they empathise with the acute struggle their communities are facing, is threatening the breakup of the Union. Within England, the recent depiction of Andy Burnham as a figurehead of northern resistance represents a wave of internal hostility towards Westminster. If this sentiment continues to grow, who is to say we don’t end up at a situation in the North of England in 10 years’ time that we see in Scotland now? Simply put, the regions of England ignored by London might start to realise they might as well go it alone.
The shift of government closer to the people, first through the New Labour devolution settlements then the metro mayors and further devolution seen in the 2010’s, are good constitutional changes. Government should govern communities it understands and is clearly accountable to, and devolution and localism ensures that. Central Governments’ hostility to local leaders threatens this principle. This spat between Mr Johnson and Mr Burnham over £5 million will have implications far beyond covid policy.
In order to safeguard the union and regional trust in Westminster, the government must renew its commitment to equal and universal localism across the whole of the country post-covid. We should not be surprised in a government being unwilling to surrender power, especially during a crisis. This attitude, however well intended, could have serious constitutional implications far beyond this pandemic.
The Government will do well to support those communities suffering right now. Politically and constitutionally, ignoring rather than working with local leaders is a bad call. National and Local Government needs to work together.
Westminster must not treat local administrations as if they were inept just because they disagree with their approach. The Johnson Administration should trust and support local government to govern in the interest of the communities they know best.