Labour will launch a “take back control” bill aimed at devolving sweeping powers to local communities in its first term if it wins the next election, Keir Starmer has promised.
In a speech setting out his vision for a future Labour government, the party leader pledged a major push to devolve power away from Westminster as part of what he said would be an “end to sticking-plaster politics”.
In an attempt to capture the political centre ground and rid Labour of its reputation as the party of big government, Starmer said the answer to the problems plaguing Britain’s public services was not to open “the big government chequebook”.
Instead, he said, his party would stop power over those services being hoarded by a handful of people in Westminster.
Referring to issues such as the Brexit vote and the push for Scottish independence, Starmer said: “It’s not unreasonable for us to recognise the desire of communities to stand on their own feet – it’s what ‘take back control’ meant.”
But, he added: “We will embrace the ‘take back control’ message, but we’ll turn it from a slogan into a solution from a catchphrase interchange.
“We will spread control out of Westminster and devolve new powers over employment support, transport, energy, climate change, housing, culture, childcare provision and how councils run their finances and will give communities a new right to request powers which go beyond even that.”
Starmer was speaking less than 24 hours after Rishi Sunak laid out his own vision for the UK in the same east London venue.
Both main political parties have put devolution at the heart of their plans, with Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, spearheading the effort for the Conservatives.
Gove last week announced a £1.4bn devolution deal for north-east England that will create an elected mayor for the region.
Akash Paun, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government thinktank, said: “Keir Starmer had a pretty sound analysis of the problem – the central government does try to do too much.
“But while it is welcome that both parties are talking the same language, it remains to be seen how much this will differentiate Labour from the Conservatives.”
Labour sources say they will be less prescriptive than the government over which powers will be devolved, allowing different areas to argue for control over varied services, whether it is transport, housing or hospitality.
Starmer’s drive to devolve power away from Westminster reflects in part the fact that he wants to improve public services while sticking to relatively strict spending constraints.
“We won’t be able to spend our way out of their mess,” he said. “It’s not as easy as that.”
Sharon Graham, general secretary of the Unite trade union, said afterwards: “I want to hear Labour make it abundantly clear that the choices it will make will not lead to austerity – that we will not be getting some new buzzword that amounts to continued cuts to services and pay.”
But while much of Starmer’s rhetoric echoes the centrism of his predecessor Tony Blair, he has not gone as far as Blair, who pledged before the 1997 election to match the Conservative spending plans.
“It will be a different approach, let’s be absolutely clear, it’s a different way of working,” he said.
He said many of the Tory government’s responses to the economic crises facing the UK were short-term fixes to long-term problems of the party’s own making.
He said the winter energy price cap, for example, was a necessary measure given the war in Ukraine but had been exacerbated by previous political choices.
“The war didn’t scrap home insulation, the war didn’t ban onshore wind and the war didn’t stall British nuclear energy,” he said. “The Tory government did that.”
Instead, Labour will seek more partnerships with the private sector, he said – including in the NHS. Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, has previously said private companies could provide the answer to lengthy waiting lists, to the dismay of some on the left of the party.
Starmer said he would back public-private partnerships to provide services, saying he was “relaxed” about the involvement of businesses. “That’s what I’m proposing today … an active state working in partnership with private business,” he added.
And he said a Labour government would bring “a decade of national renewal”, saying there would be “no more sticking-plaster politics, no more Westminster hoarding power, no more holding back this country’s economic potential”.