Devolution now? The case for a new progressive Northern politics
For Involve Yorkshire and Humber, York, November 18th 2014
So why ‘devolution’? Let’s get it clear at the start: it’s only a means to an end. It must be about greater social justice, a more balanced nation, sustainable economic growth and greater popular participation in how our communities work. It was interesting to see how the debate in Scotland in the last few weeks of the referendum focused on issues like child-care, removal of Trident, jobs and the NHS rather than ‘independence’ per se. We’ve much to learn from the Scottish experience and the continuing high levels of political engagement, reflected in the phenomenal rise in membership of the SNP and other pro-independence parties as well as support for non-aligned groups like the Radical Independence Campaign.
It’s starting to happen south of the border. The debate on democratic devolution within England is moving forward rapidly, after years of disinterest. There is a refreshing open-ness to develop a new politics which offers a progressive alternative to UKIP and the other established parties. It’s very clear that following both Clacton – but Heywood and Middleton in particular – the political situation is changing and there’s a vacant space for a radical politics in the North of England which is inclusive and popular and mirrors the radical politics that have emerged in Scotland. The voluntary sector has a potentially huge role to play in this ‘small p’ politics. Scottish devolution in the mid to late 1980s was propelled by the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention which involved broad swathes of civil society. My central argument is that the full potential of Northern devolution will only be won if the debate extends way beyond the ‘political class’ and reaches out to the grassroots. We need an inclusive ‘Northern Citizens’ Convention’ which has strong local roots – a ‘citizens’ convention’ in every neighbourhood! It can be done. People are not apathetic or sick of ‘politics’ per se – just a particular kind of politics reflected by the way we are being governed by Westminster. Tens of thousands of people in Scotland have become involved in politics, both for and against independence, over the last few months. Can we start to get some of that energy generated in the North of England?
The ‘English problem’
It’s widely recognised that England is a highly centralised nation with power and resources increasingly concentrated on London and the south-east. The historic ‘north-south’ divide is getting bigger and virtually every index of deprivation shows the North (Yorkshire and the Humber; North-West and North-east) becoming poorer in comparison to the South-east. The Scottish referendum campaign has forced the political establishment to accept further devolution for Scotland and the ‘English Question’ – how to re-balance England itself so London and the South-east becomes less dominant – has shot up the agenda.
The response from the political establishment has been to avoid creating any new directly-elected bodies but instead to devolve some powers and resources to ‘combined authorities’ in Northern city regions and impose elected mayors on city regions. Some of these ‘combined authorities’ already exist, for example in Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. They bring together the local authorities in their respective areas, with the council leaders forming a leadership group. They have growing budgets covering a range of sectors, including transport and economic development. While it could be argued these are a pragmatic response to existing needs, their big problem is their lack of accountability. Indirectly-elected bodies such as these give greater powers to officers and effectively remove any semblance of popular participation. Further, almost by definition, ‘city regions’ have an excessive focus on the main city conurbations and less emphasis on the more peripheral urban centres and rural areas. The imposition of directly-elected mayors who will work alongside indirectly-elected combined authorities seems to me a recipe for confusion and conflict.
The alternative is ‘democratic devolution’ to the regions, with elected assemblies having similar powers to Wales and Scotland. It works in those places, why not in the North? It would solve the so-called ‘West Lothian’ questuion immediately. Devolution all round! Directly-elected regional assemblies are clear, easily understandable political units. They should be elected by PR to allow a better balance between town, city and rural hinterland. It has been suggested that this merely creates ‘another tier of bureaucracy’ but surely regionalisation should be an opportunity to radically reduce the size of the central civil service, with fewer MPs at Westminster. Further, it should involve a fundamental re-organisation of the dogs’ dinner that is English local government, with smaller and more accountable local authorities which reflect people’s local identities. We should look at new forms of local democracy based on co-operative structures that are accountable, enterprising and creative.
Critics have said that there is no ‘public appetite’ for regional assemblies and cite the 2004 referendum in the North-East as proof. Yet ten years is a very long time and we’ve since seen the success of devolution in the UK. And the original ‘offer’ in 2004 was not only a top-down fix but offered little concrete advantages.
A ‘bottom-up’ approach to regional democracy offers an opportunity to create new forms of governance. There should, from day one of a regional assembly, be a requirement to have gender equality and a proportion of seats for young people under the age of 30. Regional assemblies should be about encouraging democracy and participation at more local levels, working with councils and neighbourhood organisations: it’s about opening up how we do politics.
Devolve to where? Yorkshire, North-West and the North
Popular regionalism needs to reflect strong historic identities and be of a manageable size. In the North of England, it means accepting that there are three ‘regions’ – Yorkshire, the North-east and North-West (at least). They have many things in common and need stronger physical links – through improved transport infrastructure and telecommunications – but also economic and other forms of co-operation. The political implications of this are assemblies for Yorkshire, the North-East and North-West who co-operate with each other on a number of issues. The areas where regional assemblies could focus on include:
- Infrastructure and transport
- Economic development
- Creative industries/culture
- Higher education
There are some areas where pan-Northern co-operation is crucial, notably in transport and economic development. In the case of rail, for example, there is already a ‘Rail North’ executive which is overseen by 30 local authorities. Instead of 30, why not just have three? Whilst the focus of devolution should be to the assemblies, joint co-operation can be progressed through a virtual ‘Council of the North’ which shares resources and services as appropriate. It isn’t about having a huge bureaucracy somewhere in the Pennines – it’s about practical collaboration and highly flexible and innovative ways of working which don’t involve endless unproductive meetings.
A new Northern politics?
A new and distinctly ‘Northern’ regionalism is starting to emerge. There is already a North-east Party, Yorkshire First and ‘The Free North Campaign’. Recently, a revived ‘Campaign for the North’ was launched to promote pan-Northern approaches. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation was set up three years ago as a cross-party/non-aligned lobby and think tank group for Northern devolution. Within the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats there is growing interest in regionalism though this isn’t yet reflected in leadership support. Only the Greens have a clear pro-regionalist stance.
There is a very strong likelihood that the general election next May will see regionalist candidates standing in many constituencies across the North, fighting on a progressive, democratic programme and offering a popular alternative to UKIP to disillusioned voters. Yorkshire First was formed as recently as March this year but managed to pick up 20,000 votes in the European elections a few weeks later, with hardly any campaigning and no resources. Its ‘Yorkshire Pledge’ for an elected assembly is gaining over a hundred on-line ‘pledges’ each week. Can that be translated into votes at what will be a crucial general election? And where, if it does, will they come from? Both Yorkshire First and The North-East Party are wary of ‘left’ and ‘right’ labels, stressing their democratic and socially progressive values but appealing to what, in traditional terms, is a broadly centre left to centre right spectrum. Neither is narrowly ‘anti-South’, representing an inclusive ‘civic regionalism’ which welcomes all who have made Yorkshire or the North East their home. Both are broadly pro-European.
A key objective of groups like Yorkshire First is to prove that there is popular support for regional democracy. This will – the argument runs – nudge parties such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats to embrace the idea of directly-elected assemblies. There are precedents for the idea: Labour’s commitment to devolution in Scotland and Wales was as much driven by concerns about the SNP and Plaid Cymru stealing their votes so much as a genuine desire to devolve power. Today, if anything, the stakes are even higher with Labour facing the real possibility that it will be squeezed between right-wing populist nationalism and a new progressive Northern regionalism.
But the debate must go way beyond the political parties – established and new. There is no simple answer to ‘the Northern Question’. It’s easy to come up with blueprints from on high which lack popular engagement and support. That’s why the Hannah Mitchell Foundation and Unlock Democracy are calling for an inclusive ‘Northern Citizens’ Convention’ that can be the beginning – and not the end – of a debate on how best to extend democracy to the North. Within organisations like Involve Yorkshire and the Humber there’s huge expertise in how we could develop a more inclusive approach to changing the world we live in. We need your help, advice and involvement to make the Citizens’ Convention take off across the North. I’d like to see ‘mini’ citizens’ conventions in every town and village across the North.
Finally – politics is too important to be left to the politicians. The world – and our bit of it here in Yorkshire – is changing rapidly. We can influence that change or sit back and let change be forced upon us. I’ve little doubt as to where your preferences lie!
Paul Salveson is general secretary of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org www.paulsalveson.org.uk