The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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A new democracy in a new Britain? – a view from Leeds

25th September 2014

I have been very excited by the way in which the Scottish referendum campaign engaged people in a discussion about feelings of powerlessness and how to regain democratic control over decisions about their lives made by a centralised and seemingly unaccountable London-centric elite. In particular, I think that we must harness that energy to build democratic consent for directly elected sub-national governance as close as possible to the people and that has reserved powers not just to control budgets allocated from a federal (UK wide) level but also to raise and spend its own revenues.

As well as opportunities however, I feel that these developments also present dangers. From above, there is a danger that the lessons of voters engaged by new, different and grassroots approaches to democratic engagement will be missed and an approach to devolution that most suits those who already hold power will be imposed on us. At a more local level, there is a danger that this energy for change will be exploited by UKIP and far right organisations who will try to divide communities by appealing to notions of identity based on accidents of birth. My fear for Yorkshire in particular is that our strong sense of cultural identity will become exclusive in nature – to me, governance must be based on anyone who lives there and be welcoming to anyone who wants to live there and make it a success.

For these reasons I believe that we need to quickly decide in each area what we want and then build coalitions in those areas to demand nothing less. The future governance of the UK must come up from the people and not simply be a continuation of our futures, including our system of governance, being determined by a London-centric establishment that has not well served those of us outside London’s commuter belt (nor the least powerful members of society within London itself).

Two of these key demands from my perspective must be that:

  • We develop a federal system of governance for all of the the UK at the same time, recognising that people in Mansfield and Plymouth are just as disenfranchised from power as in Northern England and Cornwall. Equally those in East Anglia and the South-East should have the opportunity to be part of a London centred region if they prefer to maintain that relationship over more locally based structures. We must avoid the trap of undermining our democracy with equivalents of the West Lothian question and the envy of those in Northern England at the ability of those just north of the border to make decisions about the costs of personal care and higher education.
  • We resist all moves towards an English parliament which by its very nature would concentrate even more power over areas far from London in the hands of those based in London. We must never allow the democratic rejection of a North East Assembly with no real powers to be used as an example of how people want England wide rather than sub-national governance. Scotland’s electorate were engaged by questions of governance with powers, everyone else in the UK should have the right to vote on bringing similar powers closer to a geographic population of a similar size.

Based on this, I think there are three options for my own area, Leeds (and I would be interested to know what people think are the preferred options for their own area):

Leeds City Region – This would seem to be the option most favoured by the current government and therefore would meet the least resistance in going forward. It also seems to be about the smallest, realistic size for governance of this nature and therefore the likeliest to be able to focus on an area’s specific needs (even though tensions between Leeds and Bradford in particular would need to be balanced). As the preferred option of government however, its implementation is therefore the most likely to be controlled from the centre on terms that suit the centre and would also be primarily based on existing structures controlled by the local establishment and of questionable democratic legitimacy (such as low voter turnout and non-elected ‘partnerships’). If this option were preferred, there are also difficult questions about what happens to the rest of Yorkshire (could it be a separate region based on York? Would Sheffield also be a viable city region?) or to the rest of the North (city regions based on Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle with separate regional governments for each of the rest of Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Borders ie. Cumbria and North East?).

Yorkshire region – The Grand Depart of the Tour de France gave us an inspiring example of what can be achieved from within Yorkshire without a London lead and presented an open, positive, inclusive and internationalist vision of Yorkshire that could be embraced by a wide variety of civil society. It may not be as close to the people as a city region but there is an existing and widely felt sense of identity that could bind city and country together in a way that may not work in other existing government regions. This would clearly help in building popular support for sub-level governance that is demanded from below rather than imposed from above – notwithstanding the earlier concerns about an exclusive definition of Yorkshire identity. I could see both sides of why people in Grimsby and Scunthorpe would or wouldn’t want to be part of such a region. Obviously they should decide this for themselves and be welcomed if they wanted to join Yorkshire.

United North – The scale of governance uniting all three existing government regions in the North would make for a powerful body with the ability to bring about greater change than a city region or region on its own. There is clearly some sense of ‘Northern’ identity and of common interests that would make this a possibility from a popularity point of view but it would be the option most likely to lead to a new elitism distant from the people in its capital. Whilst Manchester would seem a considered choice, with Leeds putting forward its own claims, another option would be to look at the German balance of city specialisms – Manchester media and culture, Leeds legal and financial, Newcastle/Liverpool international trade and political power in Middlesbrough?

Given the nature of the sub-national powers that I am proposing, I’m open to ideas as to how the executive and legislative would relate to each other at that level. My inclination though would be more towards a Holyrood model of a directly elected assembly electing ministers rather than a London model of a directly elected mayor and assembly. I also think that the success of voting in Scotland should also make us confident in advocating for elections on the basis of proportional representation and for the enfranchisement 16 and 17 year olds. Clearly any sub-national governance must also be part of a wider federal balance of powers and I see no reason why we could not look at the German, US and other systems around the world for examples of how we do this including a proposal that representatives should be elected by each sub-national assembly or directly by the sub-national electorate to a second federal chamber to replace the House of Lords. In addition, below the sub-national level we must also develop or maintain directly elected bodies including at the neighbourhood/parish level and district/city level although these sub-national bodies could replace county/unitary level authorities and therefore help to fund the new structure in Yorkshire at least.

When I woke up and saw the news this morning, these were my thoughts about my area. How about you?

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