Keir Starmer – 2021 Speech to the LGA Labour Conference

The speech made by Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, on 6 February 2021.

Thank you for that introduction, Nick.

And for everything you’re doing for the people of Newcastle, for the Labour Party and for local government.

Thanks also to the LGA Labour group and the ALC for making this conference such a success – even in the most difficult of circumstances.

I have to say it’s a bit odd that I’m giving a speech on localism into a camera – rather than surrounded by you and our fantastic team of Labour councillors, mayors and candidates.

I hope it gives you a sense of how important I think my relationship is with you that my first visit as Labour leader – just after the first lockdown – was to Stevenage with our amazing council leader, Sharon Taylor.

When I was running to be Labour leader I said we needed to close the gap between the Labour Leadership in Westminster and the Labour Leadership across the country.

That’s why over the last ten months we’ve worked so hard to strengthen the bond between you and me.

I feel passionately about this – our party has a huge amount to learn from what you’re doing and we should champion much more than we do all of your achievements.

And I’ll be out with you again – fighting for every seat in the elections in May.

Those elections will be difficult – and given the pandemic they will be unique.

But there is no doubting that they are incredibly important elections.

Because every vote for Labour this May is a vote to secure our economy, to protect our NHS and to rebuild Britain.

Every council seat we can win is a chance to support our local communities, to deliver social justice and to make a difference to people’s lives.

That’s why I got into politics. Its why you did too: To change lives, to build stronger communities and to make this the country we know it can be.

During this pandemic, the absence of good government in Westminster has reminded us how much it matters.

And we’ve also seen that local government matters more than ever.

Because it’s been you – in local government – who have kept our communities safe.

Whether by pioneering local test and trace services – as Preston, Sandwell, Blackburn and many other Councils did.

We all know that test and trace was really struggling until the Government finally accepted the argument to hand much more control to our local authorities.

You also brought together local charities, volunteers and businesses to provide emergency food and support for those at risk – Gedling Borough Council and Nottingham City Council are examples of this, but there are many others I could choose.

You also set up growth hubs and dedicated support for local businesses, as we’ve seen with Rossendale, Basildon and many other councils.

And, of course, Mark Drakeford and the Welsh Council leaders have shown the huge benefits of working hand in hand to tackle the pandemic.

You’ve held communities together. You’ve made a difference.

So today I want to start simply by saying: thank you.

And then I want to talk about what you’re owed in return.

Because for too long, the work of local government has not been sufficiently recognised.

For too long, the demand to our local leaders has been: do more, with less.

For too long, Westminster has held onto powers that would be far better exercised closer to home.

It’s time that changed.

It’s time that power was pushed out from Westminster to the British people.

This pandemic has exposed how hard governing locally has become.

Budgets are tighter than they have ever been. The demand for services is greater.

A national crisis on this scale should have been a time for central government to work with and empower local communities.

But too often this Government’s approach has been to keep local government at arm’s length.

To hold back services that would have been far better in local hands, such as track and trace.

And to talk over local leaders on decisions that have huge consequences on people’s jobs and lives.

This Government likes to talk the language of localism.

But that rhetoric needs a reality check.

Because over the last decade, councils in England have seen their core funding cut by £15 bn.

Local government across the country is now facing a huge funding gap.

It’s a shameful story – but sadly not a new one.

In fact, we’re living through the latest chapter of a story that stretches back over a hundred years.

That story is about the long retreat of local government power in this country.

It’s a story of centralization and continuous cuts.

It’s a story of a slow but steady erosion of local control.

In the last decades of the 19th century, local authorities raised money and spent it locally.

They built houses, parks, hospitals, museums, libraries and swimming pools.

Think of the great monuments of civic pride.

The great George Square in Huddersfield.

The proud town halls of Bradford, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester and Wakefield.

And, of course, local government has produced some of our great pioneers and public servants.

Just as it does today.

But for a century now, local government has been in retreat.

Sometimes social justice required this.

For example, the Lloyd George reforms and the response to The Great Depression of the 1930’s. Equally the two World Wars demanded it.

And the Labour Governments of Attlee, Wilson and Blair carried out vital reforms on a national scale.

But even the new Labour Government of 1997 – while delivering historic devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – made less progress in delivering devolution across England.

And that’s as nothing when compared to the record of Conservative governments.

Thatcher, of course, wanted to turn back the post-war welfare state – but she didn’t want to return any power to local authorities.

On the contrary, she wanted to crush local government, and cut funding even further.

That was bad enough.

But it was just a prelude to the assault on local government that occurred after 2010.

Central government grants to local councils were slashed by over a third.

One by one, local institutions have disappeared.

In the last decade, local spending on youth services in England fell by 73%.

Nearly 800 youth centres closed.

700 libraries.

In 2010, there were around 3,600 Sure Start centres in the UK.

1,000 of those have since closed.

This government promised a new start.

But what use is talk of levelling up, if our local services are shut down?

The Government said it would do “whatever it takes” to support local government.

But local budgets are under strain like never before.

And as you know better than anyone: one of the main reasons is that despite years of promising to fix Social Care.

The Tories have spent years cutting social care budgets.

The way the Tories have neglected social care in this country and failed to protect our care homes is a national disgrace.

We will never let them forget it.

I know that the government’s failure to fund councils properly will leave many councils with no choice but to put council tax up.

That’s why Labour forced a vote on this in the House of Commons two weeks ago.

And we’ll keep pushing the Chancellor to provide the funding councils need – and were promised.

But funding is only part of the story.

It’s time for some new thinking too.

To end the long retreat of local government.

And to empower our local leaders and local communities like never before.

Because I believe that power, resources and decision-making should lie as close to people as possible.

My view is simple: power should be exercised locally unless it has to be exercised centrally.

Lots of leaders say this.

I actually mean it.

Britain today is one of the most centralised countries in Europe.

And it’s holding us back.

Economic devolution, done right, reduces regional inequalities and delivers social justice

Push power down, and you spread prosperity out.

Empower local leaders…. and local communities thrive.

For over a century, successive governments have failed to understand this….

It is time to rebalance. To deliver real devolution and real social justice. To ensure that local people are in charge of the resources – and the opportunities – to improve their own communities.

And to push power out beyond our town halls and city centres

That’s what we aim to achieve with our constitutional commission.

Now, I know this can sound dry!

But it is utterly central to the UK-wide project of empowerment and localism that I want the next Labour government to deliver.

That won’t be about shifting powers from one place to another….or moving a few government departments or civil servants across the country.

It will seek fundamentally to change the balance of power, wealth and opportunity across the United Kingdom.

Because I believe there’s a desire across the country for politics and power to be much closer to people.

And unless we answer that now – and finally deliver real devolution in England – we wont be able to deliver better services

Build stronger communities

Or realise the potential in all corners of the country.

I want all of you – our councillors, mayors, the LGA and our local government leaders – to play a key role in the Commission

To shape its thinking.

Because there could be nothing worse than drawing up a blueprint for localism in a room in Westminster, We’ve had enough of that!

This needs to be shaped by the experiences of those at the sharp-end of local government across England….and across the UK.

In the last year local government has done so much for all of us.

You deserve a government in Westminster that recognises that.

But with Johnson and Jenrick, I suspect it’s going to get harder before it gets easier for local government.

A story that started a hundred years ago has some time to run yet.

But looking to the future, I believe that we can close the book on the long story of the retreat of local government….the tale of centralization and cuts.

And that starts with the elections in May.

It starts with you.

We often hear that people don’t trust politicians.

I think the bigger problem is that politicians don’t trust the people.

I do.

We do

And when the people return Labour to power, Labour will return power to the people.