Musings on Elected Mayors for ‘Northern Powerhouses’

Ever get the feeling politicians aren’t listening? Sorry, sorry, stupid question. This post could last forever if I go into detail on every single thing. My main criticism today is this plan for an elected mayor of Greater Manchester which emerged yesterday.

Two years ago, Manchester and many other cities around the country (Wakefield included) said no to an elected mayor in referendums. Only Bristol wanted one and I’m not sure how that’s worked out for them. Nevertheless, yesterday George Osborne announced that Greater Manchester would have an elected mayor, probably from 2017 onwards. Admittedly, it’s a slightly different proposal than the one previously offered but it’s still an elected mayor and the people of the Manchester area seem to be getting no choice in the matter.

The fact that the leaders of the ten councils affected have agreed to the proposals is worrying in itself. In my experience, politicians only vote for something which is good for politicians (side note: all the council leaders in this area seem to be white men) and I hear dissent is already coming from areas like Trafford.

For me, I suppose, it’s about the concentration of power and the guzzling up of resources. If – as seems likely if Greater Manchester is deemed a success – the experiment was replicated in other areas of the North, there is no prize for guessing what would happen. Power concentrates into one single area. Wakefield already suffers from this with the number of West Yorkshire initiatives centred on Leeds. A ‘Greater Leeds’ area would inevitably take in Wakefield. Not only are we their closest neighbour but as far as transport links etc go, we are fundamental to any success in terms of joined-up policy. Now, personally, I’m sick of being lumped in with Leeds. Wakefield is on its way to thriving again (despite the best efforts of our council to hamper such progress) and I don’t want us to become an outpost of a ‘Northern powerhouse’. Every city and town in the North should be considered its own powerhouse.

So I dislike the prospect of linking areas together with little regard for their individuality. However, I do favour more regional devolution based on assemblies rather than the concentration of power in one person in one area. Only this way can cities like Wakefield get decent representation alongside their more statuesque neighbours (as an aside I DO NOT agree with Labour’s regional senate proposals but that’s an argument for another day).

On the one hand, I appreciate the government finally recognising that the North needs to be seen as something other than ‘not the South East’. On the other, these decisions are so important that I don’t want George Osborne agreeing to them with a bunch of white, mostly middle-aged men, who I suspect don’t have the best interests of their areas at heart.

Three Points on English Devolution Debate

Social media has, of course, been buzzing with comment over the last few days. A lot of it is angry or frustrated, some of it makes sense and the level of Twitter sarcasm has just shot up to new levels. I’ve been watching things zip past me and thinking. These are three things that emerged from that pondering. There was a fourth but it slipped into the ether.

  1. Many people are criticising those wanting devolution for aspiring to create new ‘tiers of bureaucracy’. That’s certainly not the type of devolution I’m in favour of. I want powers passed down which would leave Westminster with relatively little to do. That’s why, in my post on Friday, I suggested a boundary reform which would shrink the number of MPs. On top of this, I’d only envisage them sitting as and when needed – and being paid accordingly. Those professional politicians should be happy – it would allow them to take on all those directorships they currently hold without it seeming like they were neglecting their constituents.
  2. I’ve seen several references to English devolution ‘taking over the debate’. I’m sorry, haven’t we just spent two and a half years discussing Scotland? If they’re incapable of sharing the limelight or, if they want this special status of being the only country in the UK with proper devolution, then we have a problem of an entirely different colour.
  3. Labour are fast boxing themselves into a corner. A number of the big guns just can’t engage with the debate because they’re stuck peddling Miliband’s line. The debate will rumble on throughout the conference and if Miliband doesn’t come up with some answers then he’s going to become even more of an irrelevance.

Could I also ask you to take a look at this site which I’m involved with and offer your thoughts? Either here or there.

Miliband Fudges, Cameron Spies a Chance

For most of the weekend, the news has been on a loop. It consists of ‘Gordon Brown’s vow’, ‘Ed Miliband blusters’, ‘Alex Salmond calls us all liars’ and ‘David Cameron sees his chance’. At this point, I’m wishing it had been a ‘Yes’ vote, just to shut everybody up. Because, as important as our constitution is, there are other important things going on in the world – ISIL are still terrorising the Middle East and we’re sat on our hands infighting. I understand why no moves to join in properly with the air strikes were made before the referendum but we need to push our internal resentments aside and join with our allies. I hope people on both sides of the Scottish debate would recognise that constitutional change while groups like ISIL remain a threat would be like tinkering with the car engine despite knowing a meteor is about to hit – extremely short-sighted.

Of course, this isn’t to say we can’t multi-task. We need a good balance between focusing on the larger problems across the world (Russia’s another one) and national introspection. Which is another good reason why constitutional change cannot and should not be rushed. I’ve seen a lot this weekend about Gordon Brown’s ‘promise’ being broken. I’ve become almost hoarse saying that Gordon Brown is not in government and therefore could not make a binding promise.

Before anyone screams at me, I’m not backtracking on the idea of devolution at all. As I said on Friday, though, I believe we need to do it properly. We can’t stick to an artificial timetable just because an ex-Prime Minister says so. This timetable hasn’t been put to a parliamentary vote yet and, more importantly, it hasn’t been put to the British people. I say ‘British’ and I mean ‘British’ – this time devolution has the opportunity to affect us all and I’m afraid if the Scots have to wait a little while because of that then that’s the way it is. Apparently a good percentage of Scottish voters see the inherent problems in Scottish MPs voting on English-only legislation. Can these reasonable people give us five minutes to catch our breath and work out what’s to be done about it? We’re not denying you your devolution, just trying to grasp some of our own.

Amending our entire political system quickly would be a disaster. Ed Miliband wants a constitutional convention next autumn: that is untenable. Miliband hopes to deflect the issue; he hopes to get into power (utilising Scottish MPs to win, of course) then fudge things from there. He’s repeated this weekend that he doesn’t really believe in ‘English votes for English laws’ because it puts him at a disadvantage electorally (not that he said that, naturally). Miliband will get through this round of Scottish devolution according to Gordon Brown’s timetable and hope the rest of us just shut up. I’m not sure that’s going to work this time.

David Cameron is guilty of opportunism. Weakening Labour’s electoral chances was too great a prize for some Tories to pass up and perhaps that’s why they’re suddenly dancing around at the idea of ‘English votes for English laws’. Opportunistic, it may be, but it is most certainly right. It just can’t be rushed, that’s all.

The Labour conference this week is momentous. I’ll be watching closely to see what Miliband’s speech contains. Any more hopeless platitudes and I fear that his electoral campaign’s over before it’s really begun.

What Next?

For the most part, during the independence referendum, I’ve kept it zipped. I didn’t want to be drawn into arguments and there was certainly a feeling of letting the Scots fight it out amongst themselves. I’ve regurgitated other opinions, blogs and editorials, but rarely ventured my own. It didn’t matter that I was half-expecting Alex Salmond to promise unicorns in an independent Scotland – saying so would’ve only caused an argument and, frankly, one I could do without. It’s all about picking your battles wisely. Part of me hoped that Scotland would ┬ávote ‘Yes’ and then the horrors of Salmond’s half-truths on currency union, EU membership and endless oil reserves could be exposed. However, this mischievous pixie part of me was beaten by the sensible part that didn’t want to see the break-up of Great Britain just to prove a political point (there were several moments in the campaign when Labour seemed happy to do this though…).

So what now? Somehow we have to forget the animosity of the referendum campaign whilst still taking account of the problems it threw up. The most pressing of these is the so-called ‘devo-max’ proposals which have been bandied around a lot since the ‘No’ campaign started panicking. Fair enough – more powers for Scotland. I don’t deny that it’s a wise move. With the same caveats that others are making plain:

  • England and Wales must have their own devolution settlements to match what Scotland gets. At this point, the politicians don’t get to throw a load of powers to Scotland and appease the rest of us with a few paltry changes. Now the campaign is over, we’re through tip-toeing around. This is now our devolution settlement as much as it is Scotland’s.
  • Non-English MPs must not be able to vote on English-only legislation. This throws up massive problems for a potential Labour majority in 2015 which may not have the requisite English MPs to pass legislation but, frankly, that’s their problem, not the electorate’s. Imagine being forced to work in tandem with your ‘enemies’ to pass sensible legislation instead of just scoring cheap political points.
  • This process cannot be rushed. Gordon Brown came up with this rapid timetable to appease the Scots (and get it all over with before the General Election) but it won’t work like that, not if they’re trying to do it properly and sensibly. It’s not backtracking to slow the process down – we just need to do it right this time or we’ll have the same situation in another ten years or so with one country feeling victimised by the union (and, I suspect, the next time it’ll be the English).

We have the possibility here for massive constitutional reform, beyond anything Nick Clegg tried to do with his silly little proposals for the House of Lords. And, naturally, it throws up far too many issues to discuss here. These are just a few things that spring to mind about devolution now:

  • The electorate must have a say on any constitutional changes. Yes, this will slow the process down but, like elected mayors in cities around the UK which were roundly defeated, if the politicos are getting it wrong then they need to be told.
  • My personal preference would be for the majority of powers (where possible, of course) to be devolved to regional assemblies following traditionally accepted lines with a few modern adjustments. Yorkshire is one such region which would make an excellent starting-point (but, then, I would say that). The thing about Yorkshire folk, though, is that we have a strong sense of identity which would make a regional assembly for the people, elected by the people, really work in this area. I can’t comment on the strength of regional relationships in the rest of the country.
  • As these regional assemblies come into being, we would naturally need fewer MPs at Westminster. Yes, they would still be making decisions on overarching issues but they would have much less responsibility than previous. So that would require coherent and sensible boundary reform. The last attempt was ridiculous, making no reference to our inherent regional connections and just chopping everything up to fit a size. While I agree that constituency size should be roughly equal, it would matter less in a scenario where many powers are devolved to local level.

This is sounding like a lot of work, isn’t it? Which is why it simply cannot be forced through. I know that the traditional parties will resist because it saps their centralised power but that’s just why it’s the right thing to do. No party leader wants to relinquish the power they’ll wield when they get into Downing Street so they’d rather give Scotland a few more powers and just let the rest of us bumble along being ruled by people who have no comprehension of our locality and local lives.

We’ve seen how Scotland can be energised by the possibility of constitutional change. It’s time for the rest of us to get in on the act.