New year, new Labour policy direction?
With Labour ahead in the opinion polls, 2023 will be critical in deciding whether it has a serious chance of winning a General Election. Part of the battle for Labour will be down to how it sets out a clear policy agenda and transport has already featured.
Keir Starmer has already started the process of outlining his party's policy approach in a New Year's Speech. In particular, he provided hope for devolution in which transport would benefit.
"We will embrace the Take Back Control message. But we'll turn it from a slogan to a solution. From a catchphrase into change. We will spread control out of Westminster. Devolve new powers over employment support, transport, energy, climate change, housing, culture, childcare provision and how councils run their finances".
Most of the comment on the speech focused on Starmer's appropriation of the Take Back Control message. This was either 'desperate' or a 'masterstroke' depending on your political position.
But as with all political slogans, its use opens up an opportunity to fill in the policy space to make it a reality. That is where effective political engagement comes into its own. Writing a good speech is one thing but having the policies to turn slogans into a reality is another.
When appropriating a slogan that is even more important. Labour has used it as a way of demonstrating how the Government has failed to deliver on it since the Brexit referendum. That, by definition, means having policies to show that Labour's approach would be different. It is a high-risk strategy but one that offers potentially significant electoral benefits Labour hopes.
But within days of the speech, in an interview with the Yorkshire Post, shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves appeared to dampen expectations of real change. She revealed that the party does not plan to give local authorities new ways to raise money for public services. So, Westminster is already undermining the quest to 'take back control' by promising to retain control. Many across local government, not least Labour Mayors, will be hugely disappointed by Reeves' comments.
But her comments do not mean that the opportunity for ideas has already passed. Actually, it makes it even more important to press the party on its transport and devolution plans.
The most important approach is to ensure that the engagement remains positive. Rather than moaning about Reeves has said, the discussions have to remain ideas based. Whilst Labour may not want to vary taxes in the short term, there may be other workable financial options.
Mayors and local authority leaders need to use their soft powers to help cities, and other areas, to be shaped in a way that meets the needs of local communities.
That will mean looking around the world for inspiration and being creative in looking for sources of funds. It also means a good working relationship with private sector developers. There is always the danger that they are seen as a golden goose for funds. The reality is that they are often as stretched as the public sector. Public and private need each.
Rather than being disappointed or constrained by one comment in one interview, we should all view Reeves' comment as a constructive challenge and keep hold of Starmer's initial call to action.
The space to influence Labour policy exists now and should be grasped. Otherwise, nothing will change and the long-held dream of a 'joined-up transport system' will fade once again.