Chancellor George Osborne’s recent announcement that Greater Manchester is to become the first English region to get full control of its £6 billion health and social care budget created a political divide he could only have wished for. The plans will give Greater Manchester more say over its health and social care budget than Boris Johnson enjoys in London. The dispute that has arisen is not just a continued case of Labour ‘weaponising’ the NHS in the electoral battle against the Conservatives. More worryingly for Labour, it has created a divide within the party itself.
Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham argued that the plan would create a “two-tier” NHS, firmly telling Greater Manchester the planned devolution would “not be on offer” if Labour is elected to Government. However, Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester City Council, rejected Burnham’s warning, telling Channel 4 news that “The NHS will stay the NHS in Greater Manchester. What we will have is a joining-up of the care functions of local authorities with the health functions of the NHS.”
This open disagreement is concerning for Labour. George Osborne has once again caught Labour off-guard with his enthusiastic attitude towards Manchester. Last year he launched the ambitious idea of creating a Northern Powerhouse, followed up by a string of announcements in the Autumn Statement, including a state of the art science research centre to be based at the University of Manchester to develop the commercial viability of graphene. These measures, like the announcement on Greater Manchester’s health and social care budget, put the Labour Party in London on the defensive.
Despite the Conservative Party having only two MPs in the Greater Manchester area, to Labour’s 22, the party has stolen a march on claiming the political battleground over devolution to the North. So much so that Osborne was happy to announce before Christmas he had reached an agreement with Greater Manchester’s 10 Labour council leaders to adopt a regional mayor in exchange for a host of devolved powers. The joy was evident in Osborne’s face when he made the announcement to the Commons. So where is Labour in all of this?
Promising further powers to economic centres like Greater Manchester should be a no-brainer for Labour. It dominates the political landscape in the area and the city has been crying out for greater powers in its bid to cement itself as a prosperous international city. Yet sadly, under the last Labour Government, such devolution was not forthcoming.
This is not to say Ed Miliband has not spoken about regional devolution. Just last week he told an audience in East Lancashire, that the UK is “far too centralised”, adding “we’ve got to bring power closer to the people.” The problem for people in the North, and Greater Manchester in particular, is that the record of Labour on the subject is not happy reading. Osborne, in contrast, has delivered on promises that some of the local councils in Greater Manchester thought would take years to materialise.
The most troubling aspect of all for Labour is that the party doesn’t seem to be operating in a unified fashion. It is far from ideal when Burnham, an MP for Greater Manchester himself, is in open disagreement with the leader of Manchester City Council, who has done so much for the city. For advocates of DevoManc, Labour’s opposition seems somewhat opportunistic; a way of linking NHS devolution to the party’s central election goal of weaponising the NHS. If the party is serious about its devolution offer, it needs to work with areas like Greater Manchester, not against them. Too often in the past year, Osborne has been able to create a divide between the local Labour party and the national party in London.
Manchester has traditionally been a red city. In politics, as well as football. Just ten years ago fans of Manchester United could not have imagined the challenge to their dominance Manchester City would come to represent. The same may be true politically, with the Conservatives hopeful that at some point in the not too distant future it can make gains on the back of rising living standards in Manchester. Labour needs a comprehensive plan for Greater Manchester, rather than dismissing Osborne as a noisy neighbour.