Positive Noises on Devolution from Wakefield Council

There was a small piece in Friday’s Wakefield Express about the plans being drawn up for “area councils” which will give powers to “small towns and areas across the district”. The aim is to have these new structures in place by April next year and council leader Peter Box is quoted as saying, “That sounds a long way away but what’s most important is that we get the plan right.” There’s a lot of sense in that statement.

Of course, as someone who wants more devolution I’m cautiously optimistic about these proposals. However, there are many questions to be answered which will determine the success or failure of these “area councils”. Foremost, I suppose, is that of accountability. Who will be on these councils? Will they be elected or merely headed by an “appropriate person” (so an already-elected local councillor or parish councillor)? How does this relate to democracy? The second pitfall, so to speak, is that of duplicating functions. The last thing we need is an extra layer of bureaucracy. One of the things that came up when I was discussing Yorkshire First during the election campaign was the idea of duplicating functions and how this costs more money. Essentially, that’s because it isn’t proper devolution. It’s cosmetic devolution benevolently bestowed by a central power that wants to keep hold of the reins. I think if you approach these two questions of accountability and bureaucracy in tandem then you go some way to creating an effective system of ultra-local governance.

There’s a long way to go before these proposals become reality and I’ll be keeping a close eye on developments and hopefully reporting them on this blog. It’s excellent to see Wakefield Council recognising the problem, however, and I commend them for that.

There is a sting in the tail of the article though. It concludes, “The West Yorkshire Combined Authority is also working to get powers devolved to the Leeds City Region.”

Ah… Me and the Leeds City Region go together like oil and water. Still, we’ll tackle that problem (again) on another day. Let’s just focus on the potential positives coming out of this push for devolution and not on the drive to make Leeds the centre of the universe.

Didn’t We Reject Elected Mayors Once Already?

Only one week into the new government and devolution is on the agenda again. And, once more, it’s sub-standard, based on what Westminster think will work with no regard to the reality of life anywhere north of the M25. A Cities Devolution Bill will apparently be included in the Queen’s Speech and will talk about the kind of city-based devolution that London-centric politicians seem to favour. It still irritates me as much as it ever did.

For a start, a precondition of these devolution deals will be the cities involved accepting an elected mayor. Let’s focus on West Yorkshire again as it’s my stomping ground. Leeds, Wakefield and Bradford all rejected the idea of elected mayors in 2012. Now, however, if we want any sort of regional powers we’re going to be lumbered with something we voted against. That’s democratic, isn’t it? Peter Box, both the Labour leader of Wakefield Council and the chairman of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, said this to the BBC: “We have been told if we want more devolution an elected mayor is the only option and clearly there’s a decision to be made on whether we remain as we are with the devolution we’ve been given already, or seek to gain more devolution.” Westminster arrogance has lost its power to acutely stun me but being forced to accept an elected mayor alongside whatever they condescend to offer us (whether it’s right for Yorkshire or not) is beyond arrogant. Peter Box thinks that any devolution is better than none? I’m not sure I agree. The wrong type of devolution can take power further from the people. Embedding it into a Leeds City Region would do nothing for the people of Wakefield.

Which brings me to my next sticking point. The BBC are covering these proposals quite comprehensively. In a third article on their site yesterday on the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ they raised quite a few interesting points. One quote, from Tom Forth, an associate at ODILeeds positively infuriated me:

“To win business and public investment, I too often have to go to London…It’s insane. Each city in the North is too small to fight against that. We can only drag some of that investment northwards if we work together. If the people of Wigan, Pontefract and County Durham are better off commuting to Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, and Newcastle then that’s what has to happen. So many young people in those places currently leave. A Northern Powerhouse gives them an option to stay.”

Okay… Where do I start? Yes, we need to work together. But it’s positively offensive to say that the only option for people in Pontefract is to commute to Leeds and that we should be happy with that. This is exactly why I loathe the idea of city regions: if you focus growth and effort on one central place then everything on the periphery just falls away. I mean, why bother trying to attract businesses and culture to Pontefract or other small towns when the people will just go to Leeds? And then the fact that Pontefract is suffering will just be batted back with the idea that you shouldn’t invest money in an area that has no hope when you could give more to Leeds that is thriving and making use of it. I hasten to add that I’m only using Pontefract as my example here because it was mentioned in the above piece and is nice and close to me. I know a bit about Pontefract. Which is, I’m sure, more than be said for most of the Westminster elite making these decisions.

No doubt I’ll be discussing this further in the coming weeks and months. I’m glad of one thing though: devolution is on the agenda. Even if it’s a highly-selective agenda.

Mary Creagh Standing for Labour Leader

The news that Mary Creagh, my local MP, has thrown her hat into the ring for the job of Labour leader didn’t exactly surprise me. In fact, reading back over a post I wrote in November about the bizarre decision to move Creagh from the transport brief, I’m wondering if I stepped into a time-machine for a little while. I certainly made some apt predictions:

Well, as a Wakefield resident, I believe that Creagh will be re-elected on an increased majority because of the split in the vote caused by UKIP standing against the dedicated Eurosceptic Tory. They didn’t stand in 2010 and he was only a few thousand votes away from taking the seat. I can see it being messy this time. Equally, I think Miliband needs to worry more about his own seat and that of his shadow chancellor. The other possibility is that Miliband sees Creagh as a threat – don’t discount that one. Finally, it could just be that Miliband’s incompetent. Place your bets, folks. Place your bets.

So Creagh did increase her majority because of the UKIP/Conservative split (though the Eurosceptic candidate I expected to stand did not) and Miliband should’ve worried more about Ed Balls’s seat (if you listen to news stories today, it seems he might’ve seen it coming but that’s a thought for elsewhere). Did Miliband see Creagh as a threat? Well, I’m still not sure given his loose grip on reality in the last few months. However, it’s pretty obvious that she saw herself as one and that she certainly considered the top job.

As I wrote in that post in November, I have respect for Creagh as a hard-working minister, whether I agree with her policies or not. I also do admire her recent support for the family at the inquest of the two Wakefield children who died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Corfu in 2006. She’s articulate and dedicated but, despite that, I don’t feel like I ‘know’ her.

I’ll have to think long and hard about the pros and cons of all the candidates in the coming months. I have to say, though, I’m not sure I can see the benefits of having a Labour leader as my local MP. I don’t think it’s done a lot for Doncaster in the last five years.

Anger at the Count

I’ve pondered whether to name and shame the individual this blog post relates to but, honestly, I’m not out to start some sort of battle. I just want to highlight something that struck me at the local count on Friday afternoon. There are a couple of hundred people who witnessed the event if anyone needs corroboration.

For the most part, the people I met on Thursday evening and Friday were generous and friendly. I found common ground with everyone I chatted to from all hues and, as I always say, there’s no cost to being polite. I hold doors, I smile when I pass people because why shouldn’t I? Anyway, this isn’t about that.

Acceptance speeches in the local elections were meant to be short. Generally, that was adhered to with winning candidates giving thanks to those who had helped them and the count staff. Then one winner went, for want of more appropriate language, off on one. Alone on the stage with just the Returning Officer he took the opportunity to condemn the ‘dirty tricks’ campaign against him in vitriolic terms. Now, frankly, I don’t know what went on in his ward, nor do I particularly care. It wasn’t the time or place for it. His ire rose and he went on and on and on. It wasn’t short and it certainly wasn’t sweet. It was particularly infuriating given that the other candidate wasn’t there to defend themselves. Though, if they had been, I suspect the police officers hovering around the count would finally have had something to do.

Perhaps what irritated me most of all was the applause afterwards, even up in the viewing gallery where I was. It was tribalism at its worse and soured what was quite a pleasant afternoon a little. I also think I got into trouble for plainly showing that I was unimpressed. Never mind that – I’m a polite person but I can’t always hide my feelings, nor should I try to really.

The fact is this candidate won. If there was a dirty campaign against him (and he didn’t convince me, I have to say) then it didn’t matter. He’s been elected for a four-year term. The count was the first chance he had of putting rivalries aside but no. In damning his opponent in such angry language he implicitly criticised those who voted for him. That’s hardly going to foster a harmonious community atmosphere in the next four years, is it?

Yorkshire First Results in Wakefield

There’s plenty to be digested on both a local and national level and I aim to do that gradually over the next few weeks. However, I thought readers might be interested in how Yorkshire First performed in Wakefield.

I stood in my home ward of Wakefield North which is a bit of a battleground for UKIP these days. The results over the years have shifted in favour of the UKIP candidate (who is a thoroughly nice chap), though obviously Wakefield is a Labour stronghold. 54 seats out of 63 are currently held by Labour with the Conservatives having 6, UKIP 2 and 1 Independent sitting on the council. The lack of opposition is something for a future post though. In the meantime, here are the results from my ward:

Green Party – 395 (6.3%)
Yorkshire First – 161 (2.6%)
Conservative Party – 1495 (23.9%)
Labour Party – 2666 (42.6%)
TUSC – 216 (3.5%)
UKIP – 1319 (21.1%)

For me, 2.6% is a great start. With it being something of a three-way battle, it’s heartening to know that over 150 people put a cross next to my name instead of the big three. It’s also a varied field with 12.4% of the vote going to the three smaller parties.

Next, my colleague Martin Roberts stood in parliamentary, district and parish elections. This is the result from his parliamentary seat, Hemsworth:

UKIP – 8565 (20.2%)
Liberal Democrats – 1357 (3.2%)
Conservative Party – 9694 (22.9%)
Yorkshire First – 1018 (2.4%)
Labour Party 21772 – (51.3%)

To get over 1000 votes is phenomenal and I’m really proud of Martin. He’s been a very active campaigner in the last few months and I think that dedication showed here. Labour were always going to win the seat but to take 2.4% of votes in a parliamentary election is brilliant. In the district council elections he stood for the ward of Ackworth, North Elmsall and Upton:

Labour Party – 3437 (45.7%)
Conservative Party – 2081 (27.7%)
Yorkshire First – 493 (6.6%)
UKIP – 1507 (20.0%)

Again, this is excellent and there are definitely lessons to be taken from that result. As for the parish ward of Ackworth – Moor Top, I won’t list the results of all 16 candidates (voters get up to eight choices per ballot paper) but here is Martin’s result:

Yorkshire First – 591 (5.2%)

There were 8 Labour candidates on the ballot paper, 6 of whom were elected and, indeed, many of the ballot papers I saw voted primarily for Labour candidates above all others. In parish council elections that’s certainly a consideration for the future. Nevertheless, that’s another good result for Martin.

Our final candidate in the Wakefield district was Arnie Craven who stood in the parliamentary seat of Morley and Outwood (this seat is half Leeds and half Wakefield). Now, if that seat wasn’t famous on Thursday morning it was by Friday afternoon. The incumbent Labour MP (and Shadow Chancellor) Ed Balls lost his seat and there’s something very interesting about this result:

Labour – 18354 (38.0%)
Yorkshire First – 479 (1.0%)
UKIP – 7951 (16.5%)
Green Party – 1264 (2.6%)
Conservative Party – 18776 (38.9%)
Liberal Democrats – 1426 (3.0%)

So Ed Balls lost by 422 votes and Arnie got 479. I’m not saying that people who voted for him may have otherwise voted for Labour but it’s a compelling figure nonetheless and it shows how smaller parties can chop into the vote share of the mainstream.

Those are the results for our district. Plenty to chew over and may I say a personal thank you to Martin and Arnie for standing alongside me as Yorkshire First candidates in this election.