Saturday, September 17, 2011

Could boundary review put regional governance back on agenda?

Over the course of the long debate about North-East regional governance, one of the most oft-heard arguments was that the region lacked the clout to make its voice heard at Westminster.

Well, if that was true then, when the region sent 30 MPs to the Commons, it will be even more the case after the next election when its representation will fall to just 26.

This week’s review of the Parliamentary boundaries will leave no part of the region untouched, with every single one of its current 29 constituencies affected.

Some constituency names – Blaydon, Wansbeck, Stockton South – will disappear from the electoral map altogether. Others will be variously merged, dismembered or renamed.

In sub-regional terms, the impact of the Boundary Commission’s proposed changes will be fairly evenly spread.

Northumberland and Teesside will each suffer a net loss of half a seat, while Durham and South Tyne and Wear will each suffer a net loss of one.

Faced with the choice of having constituencies that crossed county boundaries, or ones that crossed the River Tyne, the commissioners somewhat bizarrely opted for the former.

The result is a series of new seats – for example Newcastle North and Cramlington – where the traditional divide between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas will be breached.

In terms of the impact on individual careers, one odd, but surely unintended consequence of the proposals is that two of the region’s ‘awkward squad’ – Wansbeck’s Ian Lavery and Blaydon’s Dave Anderson – are among those most at risk.

And those MPs which survive are likely to find themselves standing for re-election in constituencies which are almost unrecognisable from their existing ones.

Much of Nick Brown’s Newcastle East constituency, for instance, will go into the newly-created seat of Newcastle South.

It remains to be seen whether Mr Brown, who will be a month short of his 65th birthday by the time of the next election, will see that as an appropriate moment to call time on his long and distinguished career.

So much for individuals – what of the impact on the electoral politics of the region?

Well, for all the widespread assumption nationally that the changes are designed to clobber the Labour Party, this seems unlikely to be the case here.

The Liberal Democrats have been Labour’s main challengers in many of the region’s inner-city seats, but given their collapse in support in the North of England generally, Labour have little to fear in this regard.

While Hexham can be expected to remain solidly Conservative, and Berwick and Morpeth is likely to remain Lib Dem at least as long as Sir Alan Beith is its MP, the proposed changes appear to create few obvious opportunities for the Tories and Lib Dems elsewhere.

The biggest impact of the changes is likely to be on the influence of the region as a whole.

In terms of Parliamentary representation, it already lacked the critical mass to do much to influence the overall direction of government policy, as was seen during the Blair years when the region was effectively taken for granted.

This gradual loss of influence coincides with another broader trend, namely the increasing divergence between domestic policy in England and in other parts of the UK.

Post-devolution, Scotland and Wales had already begun to develop policies on health and education that are well to the left of the UK’s as a whole, and the Coalition’s public services reforms in England are further widening the gap.

The end result of all this may well see the North-East increasingly out of sympathy with the political consensus within England, yet unable to do much about it.

With its predominantly left-of-centre political culture, the region might start to look longingly in the direction of Scotland and Wales and the devolved powers which they enjoy.

It was widely assumed that the resounding no vote in the November 2004 regional government referendum had settled this question for a generation, perhaps even for eternity.

Seven years on, the day when it starts to creep back onto the agenda may not now be too far-off

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Anonymous said...

You wish, Paul! Personally, I think polls are indicating that an English Parliament first is rather more important. LOL!

Home Rule for England said...

"With its predominantly left-of-centre political culture, the region might start to look longingly in the direction of Scotland and Wales and the devolved powers which they enjoy".

An independent England possibly with regional government is what is required.

James Higham said...

It's something worth considering. They always come back at you with a new try after rejection and last time it was so resounding that it was going to be years. It's quite possibly the time for them to try again.

It's virtually regional governance with Common Purpose running the show in each region anyway.