Commanding a majority in the country, not just the Commons - RSA

Commanding a majority in the country, not just the Commons

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  • Picture of Charlotte Alldritt
    Charlotte Alldritt
    Director of Public Services and Communities, RSA
  • Economics and Finance
  • Cities
  • Public services

That Newcastle beat Sunderland to be the first to declare its general election result last Thursday night was just the beginning.  What followed, as commentators have since agonised from every angle, was one of the most extraordinary general elections since 1974. 

Theresa May has been toppled from her ‘strong and stable’ leadership soapbox. While she clings on by the grace of her depleted party, she’s still – by George Osborne’s reckoning – on ‘death row’. Talk of a second election will continue, particularly if and when UK negotiations hit the buffers with the European Union. Or worse, the Good Friday Agreement starts to unwind as a result of any confidence and supply agreement the Conservatives arrive at with the DUP.

We must continue to expect the unexpected; Brexit, Trump and a resurgent Labour Party under the hitherto much-maligned leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Sunday night’s French parliamentary election results epitomise the heady pace of change, as newly installed President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République En Marche, looks set to gain a landslide barely a year after it was established.

Macron’s success has been held up by some as a symbol of liberal resilience. Talk of the end of history is premature, they say, when the Netherlands rejected Wilders and France decidedly rejected Le Pen. But this is just the start of an ideological battle in the West that will continue to run until we learn to bridge deepening divides.

Only inclusive growth can heal divisions

Whether it’s the ‘have vs have nots’, David Goodhart’s ‘Somewheres vs Nowhere’s’ or Richard Florida’s backlash of the ‘uncreative classes’ (a term that leaves rather an unpleasant taste), many people feel left behind. As I’ve argued before, a new model of inclusive growth is needed to heal deep rifts in our economy and society.

Theresa May has reiterated her commitment to ‘make the economy work for everyone’ under her new minority government. And, just as I hope this amounts to more than another Maybot slogan, I hope it breaks down a reductionist narrative that seems to have emerged about the ‘urban gap’ between big city voters – so called ‘metropolitan elites’ perhaps – and those in the suburbs, smaller towns and countryside. “Just as”, argues Edward Luce in the FT, “London voted to remain in the EU, so New York opted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, the defeated Democrat” and the “divide between larger cities and the rest [of nation states] may be a problem we just have to get used to.”

Let us not forget that 40 percent of Londoners voted to leave the European Union, a statistic that rocked the floor of the Chicago Forum on Global Cities conference I attended last week. Despite the city contributing a quarter of the UK’s GDP, approximately a million people live in neighbourhoods where the average household income after housing costs is as low as the poorest parts of the country. Parts of inner-London (especially Camden, Islington and Tower Hamlets) are the worst hit, with up to 37 percent of average household income swallowed by housing costs.

Disconnected, disempowered and disenfranchised, our politics are finally giving voice to people who – over the last three decades, and particularly since the financial crisis – are denied entry to the prosperity and privileges the top 20 per cent enjoy. With UKIP on the wane and the Liberal Democrats failing to rally a nation largely – for now – either resigned or committed to Brexit, Labour reached deep into the Conservatives’ non-metropolitan core just as, to some extent, Tories reached parts of the Labour heartlands. Despite little discussion on what might constitute a good or a bad deal on Brexit, let alone a no deal scenario, the election was in many ways about what sort of future people wanted, and this cut across political and economic geographies. Rural and urban, city centre and suburb.

‘Shared prosperity is key’

Cities are the driving forces of our economies, they are also home to some of the deepest inequalities and protracted deprivation. Place-based policy – which seems to have gone off the boil in the UK in recent months – is critical for enabling cities of different shapes and sizes to respond to their particular challenges and opportunities. We cannot assume that cities are singularly defined, home to the same kinds of values, skills or assets, or with the same vision for what they want their place to be.

In striving for inclusive growth, the task for city-regions is to create a new kind of broad-based leadership that speaks to the diversity of people within their place – working through business, civil society and the public sector. Only then can leaders create a coalition for change that is rooted both in the legitimacy of civic engagement and in the reality of what the private and public sector are willing and able to deliver. It might entail some robust conversations: What kind of economy do we want to create? What are the terms of trade we want business and investors to engage in with and for our city and our communities? Do we have the governance structures and institutional architecture we need to achieve our vision?

In speaking at the conference in Chicago last week, Helen Clark, former New Zealand Prime Minister, noted that “cities could be everything we value - inclusion, innovation, openness. But shared prosperity is key.” To achieve this, Martin Wolf, FT columnist, Carl Bildt, former Prime Minister of Sweden and John Tory, Mayor of Toronto and Eduardo Paes, former mayor, Rio de Janierio, similarly argued that cities must make the case for their economic and political power to the rest of nation, leading on the national stage to create a more sustainable, inclusive future. As Martin Wolf writes,

Those in charge of cities should not merely argue for a better future; they must build it. Those who run countries have most of the policy instruments in their hands. But the future will be made in the cities. The leaders of cities should take that responsibility seriously.

A new local / national coalition

Calls for Theresa May to adopt a new, more consensual and consultative style must extend beyond Cabinet and the 1922 Committee to her newly elected Conservative metro mayors across the country. May could create a truly One Nation Conservatism by doing so.

More challengingly, the Prime Minister will have to show herself open to other forms of cross-party brokering for support, reaching out to Labour-led cities and city-regions. As Brexit talks get underway, the Mayor of London will have to be key partner in determining the future of our capital city and national economy – open for business and leading from the front. Calls for a new cross-party committee on Brexit are a start but don't go far enough.

Divided as we are in complex, multiple ways within and between the nations, cities and shire counties of the Union, we need a way to bind us and to command a majority of the country, not just the House of Commons. If and when there is a Tory leadership contest, or a second election, a new kind of coalition between national and local leaders could be the constitutional innovation we need to navigate the inevitable turbulence ahead. 

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  • The mechanism is there. However, focusing attention on cities and city Mayors may not be the answer. This is not an entry point to local politics for most people. For everyone to be able to participate and feel that they have a vested interest in civic life, I would argue that there needs to be a  a review of the town and parish councils role, both as an entry point for those interested in participating in local politics and a means of engaging people in the process and also in providing them with the information and tools to become useful and effective citizens.