Reflecting on the Northern Summit event held in Leeds on 14 January, IPPR North director Ed Cox argues that it demonstrated a new approach to decentralised, progressive policymaking and politics – one that points the way towards a more federal England in which the North can pursue a more humane, equal and democratic capitalism.

Yesterday’s Northern Summit offered up a new approach to progressive policymaking and politics. The summit – hosted by IPPR North and the Royal Town Planning Institute – brought together business leaders, NGOs, academics and local authorities to shape and define what is being called a ‘Great North Plan’.

On the face of it, it was just one among many conferences that are riding the Northern Powerhouse bandwagon, trying to make sense of the chancellor’s insistence that the combined economic weight of the northern cities might act as a counterweight to London. But the Northern Summit asked a subtly different and more critical question: what kind of economy do we want in the North, and how do we shape it?

A great deal of the discussion about the Northern Powerhouse initiative rests on lazy assumptions about the nature of agglomeration and urban economic development. It is right to consider the factors that have contributed to the global success that is London, but it is wrong to think that they can easily be recreated in Manchester or Leeds – or indeed that London's economy represents a model that we would want to recreate in the north. Far from it. While there are of course aspects of the capital city we would love to emulate, at the heart of the discussions about a Great North Plan was a vision of an economy that is far more inclusive, resilient and sustainable than anything we see down south. Ours is a vision of a more progressive metropolis: a more humane, equal and democratic capitalism.

So how do we get there? The Northern Summit offered some suggestions. The impetus behind the Northern Powerhouse agenda is essentially devolutionary. In his keynote speech, Lord Heseltine painted a fascinating portrait of the ‘buccaneering’ business and city leaders who galvanised the industrial revolution and the social and democratic reforms that flowed from it. These 19th century pioneers, he claimed, sadly gave way to the mandarins and ministers in Whitehall during the 20th century – a process he claimed he has dedicated the bulk of his political career to rewinding.

Some on the left fear that this government is dragging the country back to an era of Victorian values, with a small state propped up by charities and philanthropy. But they must also accept that the main solution offered by traditional, twentieth-century social democracy – a large, bureaucratic state pulling long, redistributive levers – has also been found wanting. Evidence suggests that the most agile and equal social democracies are in fact states and regions with significant political autonomy and fiscal freedoms, often exercised in population units of no more than 10 million people.

Progressive politics should therefore be moving much more swiftly to embrace the idea of a more federal England – and to outflank the piecemeal and partial settlement currently being wrought through backroom deals between ministers and city elites. Indeed, one might expect the Labour party to be rushing to set out its vision for a devolved settlement for England. But while Corbynism has offered some nods in that general direction, devolution is clearly not a primary concern. This is surprising. Many new recruits who joined the Labour party ahead of the leadership election were apparently drawn by the promise of a different kind of politics: a more deliberative, bottom-up approach. But while the new Labour leadership has shown great determination to revivify democracy within the party, it has so far had relatively little to say about how to do the same for the rest of the country.

We need to be clear how much more far-reaching a truly progressive vision for devolution in England would be than the (initially laudable) efforts of the current government. Crucially, it would involve not just more powers for local areas, but a different approach to how those powers are used. Some commentators have contrasted the misfortunes of the Labour party in parliament with its apparent success in the core cities, and thus suggested that all the Westminster left needs to do is to emulate the local left. However, while much Labour local leadership is commendable, this view is not universally held at the grassroots. More democratically-minded progressives see Manchester and many other northern local authorities as one-party states, and balk at the photographs of all-male deal-signing ceremonies in town hall lobbies. A new kind of cross-party, central–local politics it may be, but it feels some way from fully progressive.

This is again where the Northern Summit had something to offer. It was a working summit, with roundtable discussions and interactive voting gauging the mood of the room on a range of different issues. Delegates came from a wide range of backgrounds - businesses, academia, local authorities and civil society organisations, and some who spoke only as citizens – each taking positions, negotiating, debating and searching for consensus; not lobbying or taking up tribal stances. It would be naïve to suggest that every issue could be resolved through a citizens’ summit of this kind, but progressive politics should be more preoccupied with deliberative engagement than it currently appears to be. Metro-mayors barely scratch the surface: there is huge scope for a reinvention of our democratic life from the bottom up. As yet, this cause has many activists but very few mainstream champions.

Yesterdays’ Northern Summit demonstrated the huge opportunities that a more federal England would present to reform capitalism, to decentralise the state, and to unlock democratic innovation. George Osborne has opened up this territory, but the north of England may yet become the place to be for progressive politics and policymaking in Europe. Roll out the Great North Plan.