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Learning the lessons from the disaster of 2004

June 14, 2013
By George McManus:
My background is a lifelong Labour Party member and devolution campaigner from Glasgow now in East Yorkshire where I chair my CLP.   I’ve also represented Yorkshire Constituency Parties on the National Policy Forum since 1997.   Twice Parliamentary candidate.
I joined Campaign for Yorkshire in 1997 and was employed by The Campaig for the English Regions in 2001 as Parliamentary Officer based in the Commons.  Working with John Tomaney, Jane Thomas, Paul Salveson and others, my remit was to get MPs on board and brief the press.
At the NPF in 2000 I secured a commitment from the Labour Party, working with Prescott, to bring forward a Bill which led to the ‘Your Regions, Your Choice ‘ White paper and eventually the referendum for a North East Assembly.
I am still fully committed to the principle of devolution for the English regions as promised in Labour’s 1899, yes 1899 manifesto!   My main concern now is to try and make sure we learn the lessons from what happened between 2001 and the disaster of November 2004.
The reasons I think we failed were that Blair never backed it, we accepted watered down proposals, we got bogged down in the arguments about structures and process, and we were so desperate to make some headway that we accepted the principle of a referendum for a single region whilst we should have held out for simultaneous referenda in at least the 3 Northern regions.    It needs to be remembered that in 2003, a referendum for Yorkshire was proposed by government.  However, because an all postal vote was to be used and serious irregularities were encountered during the Euro elections in June 2004, we went ahead with only the referendum in the North East.
We were frightened of accusations that it was another layer of bureaucracy and instead of explaining that democracy always carried a cost we tried to do it on the cheap and dumbed it down.   We were accused of setting up structures which would conflict with Westminster and instead of arguing for stronger powers accepted very limited powers.  Some people, Blair for example, said the assemblies would be no more than glorified Parish Councils and in response people said, ‘then what’s the point if they don’t have teeth?’   Finally and fatally in my view, a seriously flawed rationale then kicked in, that as only the North East could be trusted to vote for an assembly, then only they should have a referendum.
All of these played into the hands of the opposition who mounted a concentrated and very effective campaign based on the idea that this was a European plot, founded on the ‘Europe of the Regions’ proposals.   Also that it would create a massive white elephant with another layer of politicians with their snouts in the trough.     I remember they had a massive inflatable white elephant which soared over the skies in Newcastle.    Being able to concentrate all their resources in the North East meant they had maximum impact although all the polling had said three quarters of people in the North East supported the idea.
The fact that the North East had also seen a renaissance since 1997 with the area being transformed, without the need for a directly elected assembly, conspired to work against us.   People looked around.  They saw new buildings going up, falling unemployment and without Blair’s backing, they came to the conclusion that there was no need to change.
Today could be different.   You may wish to cross reference to the work being done by Paul Salveson on devolution for the North and the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, but I would suggest that we need to win the hearts of people in Yorkshire and will only do so if we give them a set of proposals which are meaty, robust, democratic and worth voting for.   I think we need a constitutional convention similar to the Scottish model which took evidence throughout the 1990s and informed parliament when it came to establishing the original assembly in Edinburgh.   We should identify a ready made home for the Assembly, which should be in York possibly at the old Guildhall thus negating the ‘White Elephant’ argument.
What we don’t want to end up with is a wee ‘Tuppeny ha’penny Parliament’ as Billy Connelly once called the original Scottish Assembly, people just wont see the point and wont vote for it. That’s why I think we need something powerful with teeth and credibility along the lines of what Scotland has now.   We need to be ambitious if we’re not to fail again.

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One Comment
  1. Richard Carter permalink

    A good straightfirward analysis but what are any of the major parties doing about this? It is not on any of their agenda’s to even consider adooting it. The all party commitee that oroduced a report suggested regionalism was not on the agenda. Without this what do you think can be done? How can a constitutional convention be formed for Yorkshire?

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