The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Can we own how devolution affects our area?

14th October 2014

Sometimes I get very frustrated by the BBC. Like when it puts rugby league highlights on at 1pm on a Tuesday. Or 3am on a Wednesday. But it’s hard to ignore, hard to get away from. Even for those who have made deliberate decisions to avoid a particular media source (such as those angry at The Sun for it’s Hillsborough coverage) or whose generational attitudes to media put them at polar opposites of the ‘Second hand bookshop-Queuing outside a phone shop at midnight’ continuum, the chances are that every week there will be part of the BBC’s varied output that enters their consciousness. And as a result, for the last month, there will be few people who will have been unaware that lots of people in Scotland who didn’t seem like stereotypical politics enthusiasts were making loud and clear demands for decisions about their lives to made closer to them. Whatever you may feel about the BBC’s own establishment credentials, it simply had to show pictures of and hold interviews with people who were challenging the way that decisions made by the establishment had impacted on their lives.

For those interested in addressing the centralisation of power in other parts of the UK, this was an opportunity. An opportunity to put forward their own analysis for what this meant for their own area of interest. Whilst Respublica’s call for Devo Manc has been loudly supported by a cohesive message from Greater Manchester council leaders, their call to become the first English region outside London to benefit from devolution from the centre seemed to have awakened municipal leaders in Leeds City Region. Meanwhile existing political parties in Cornwall (Mebyon Kernow), Yorkshire (Yorkshire First) and the North East (NE Party) saw increases in membership, profile and momentum that offered a view from outside of existing power structures within their area. Likewise non-partisan campaigning organisations like the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, Campaign for the North and Yorkshire Devolution Movement found themselves at the forefront of debates with the Campaign for an English Parliament about why supporting England as a united sporting entity didn’t mean supporting England as a unitary political entity. All of this took place against the backdrop of ‘devolution debates’ woven through conference season for the Westminster parties, Unlock Democracy’s UK wide campaign for a constitutional citizens convention and renewed academic enthusiasm for an engaged citizens dialogue at places like Huddersfield University.

I wrote in my previous blog about possible approaches to devolution that may affect my home city of Leeds and in particular appealed for the process of devolution to be one enthusiastically owned by citizens within each geographical area and defined by an inclusive idea of identity and rights (http://www.respublica.org.uk/ item/A-new-democracy-in-a-new- Britain-a-view-from-Leeds ). Following on from this I have been very heartened by the efforts of Yorkshire First to promote their vision of a Yorkshire assembly as a beacon of participative democracy, social justice and meaningful liberty within a federal Britain. Their engagement seems to me to be about a hopeful future. But there will be many people who do not wish to join a political party or who do not wish to leave their existing party. Whilst they obviously hope that as many people as possible will join their party, the sense I get from Yorkshire First is that they want the Scottish inspiration to help build a new energy for inclusive democracy in our part of the island and that they fully appreciate the key contribution of non-partisan civil society groups in Scotland’s democratic awakening. As part of that engagement, Yorkshire First are planning a ‘Citizen’s Conversation’ for the region. The question is whether their limited resources will enable them to make active efforts to include all sections of society in all parts of Yorkshire.

As described before councillors, business leaders, trade unions, local media, the Twitterati are already involved in the debate about devolution and should play a role in any ‘Citizen’s conversation’. It is important to be clear however that all of these groups are already doing OK within the current system. I personally believe they could be doing better in a federal Britain at the heart of the EU, but for now at least they have a clear place in our society. A new democracy however must engage those who are not doing OK – the poor and disenfranchised, people turned off by Westminsterism & tribalism. This means including all kinds of people in all parts of the region and that means particular additional effort to engage people who may not initially trust anybody standing in an election, people who doubt that politics could be for them. It is of course much easier to engage with those who already feel included and extra efforts to pro-actively connect with the disenfranchised might require more resources, both financial and organisational. This might mean turning to a grassroots fundraising mechanism like Kickstarter to fund consultation meetings, particularly in localities where people feel excluded (exactly the places that the far right could exploit).

A true ‘Citizens Conversation’ would see the engagement of people like neighbourhood workers and local Councils for Voluntary Service as a key part of the process, advocating democratic ownership of the process of devolution and in doing so engaging their members and those with whom they work. It would engage with grassroots community initiatives like Leeds Citizens and the Leeds For Change Summat and specifically consult for example housing association tenants, mental health service user representative bodies, refugee fora and in places such as village halls, neighbourhood family centres and schools. It has to be more than the recent Yorkshire Post online video vox pop that consulted daytime midweek visitors to Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the time and location, all of those consulted were white and middle aged. We definitely do want to hear their voices. But not JUST their voices.

Ideally devolution would be driven by civil society within each local area – the process of devolution should itself be an example of what devolution could be. There may also therefore be a role for newly created groups of citizens with a common interest debating and campaigning within that area of interest and contributing towards a bottom up campaign working together to demand powers for their geographical area, for example a movement of Teachers for Yorkshire could think about a schools perspective on devolution for Yorkshire.This group would engage others within education to campaign for devolution and to share ideas/ develop proposals for what education might look like in a devolved Yorkshire, for example investigating the way in which Germany’s different Länder have been able to develop education systems based on the reality within their own areas whilst considering possible concerns from teachers that devolution of education responsibilities might lead to different pay for education staff in different regions. Each grassroots part of the movement could develop ideas for how they think devolution could best work for their area of interest.

If we in Leeds want to address the democratic deficit in the way decisions are made about our lives, devolution offers hope of change. If we want that change to be genuinely inclusive of all who make our city great and to make a real difference to the lives of those most let down by our current London-centric elite, we must debate and demand the kind of power that would bring about the right kind of change. Whether Yorkshire First’s preferred option of a regional assembly is that right option or not, their call for a ‘Citizen’s Conversation’ and for an inclusive and progressive vision of devolution is a possible step towards that change. But we cannot expect them to do it all on their own, the fact that they are not currently backed by any wealthy or powerful part of the establishment could be a positive but it does also mean that they have few resources at this stage. Just as Scotland’s grassroots organised towards defining their own destiny, it is time for civil society in Leeds, elsewhere in Yorkshire, in the wider North and in fact across the whole of England to engage with this agenda and make sure that when devolution happens, it happens in the best interests of those who most need our democracy to change.


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