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New democracy for a new Yorkshire? – a personal view from east Leeds

September 22, 2014
Ian Martin, a first time blogger from Leeds, believes that we need to quickly decide what we want and then build coalitions to demand nothing less.
New democracy for a new Yorkshire? – a personal view from east Leeds
I struggled to get to sleep on Thursday night. The adrenaline kept me awake. Could it really be that Scottish teenagers debating politics on TV had given me the kind of sleeplessness that I normally only felt the night before the bad old days of Leeds Rhinos’ ill fated trips to Wembley? Eventually I gave in and switched on the coverage of Scotland’s vote to remain part of our Union. All day my mind continued to whirr with the implications and later that day I saw some interviews with shoppers in Leeds market on the teatime TV news. They worried that our part of this island taking control of our destiny in a similar way would mean the same old politicians grabbing more powers for themselves and costing the taxpayer more. But does it have to be this way? Wasn’t the real success of the referendum debate the way in which the people of Scotland started to reclaim their part of this island from those who had let them down?

I was 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, it convinced me that here too we must harness that energy to build democratic consent for directly elected 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 felt that these developments also presented 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). It must be a federal system that assumes power lies with the people and decisions should always be taken at the closest possible level to the people it affects. This means neighbourhoods/parishes, cities/districts and also representatives from all the regions sitting in place of an abolished House of Lords. It also means regional governance partially funded through the abolition of county and unitary authorities and given the success of Scottish democracy, I think those elections should be by proportional representation including the enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds.

Two further key demands 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 who have benefited most from our London-centric establishment. 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 regional 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 hope that in agreeing or disagreeing with my proposals it will also encourage people to think about what might be 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 regional 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?

The Scottish referendum debate got me thinking about my area and how people in my area could start to make sure that more of the decisions that affect us are decided by people we elect to stay close to us, both literally and metaphorically. What do you want in your part of our island? How can we make sure that it is us and not the same tired old elites who lead the agenda? It will only happen if we make it happen.



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