Saturday, April 21, 2012

Labour must share blame for region's plight

Over the past few weeks, the domestic political agenda has been dominated by the continuing fallout from what has by now surely become of the most controversial, even reviled Budgets of recent years.

It started within a few minutes of the Chancellor sitting down on 21 March with the revelation that he had performed a stealth tax raid on pensioners' incomes by freezing their personal allowances - the so-called 'granny tax.'

It continued with the belated realisation that, in pursuing the entirely laudable objective of limiting the amount of tax relief that can be claimed by the super-rich, the government had also made life much, much harder for the charitable sector.

And throughout it all there has been the ongoing row over the so-called pasty tax, coupled with increasingly laughable attempts by Old Etonian ministers to get with the workers by claiming to be fans of the hot snacks.

But until this week, no serious consideration had been given to the particular impact of George Osborne's proposals on the North-East.

So first off, congratulations are due to Gateshead MP Ian Mearns, always a doughty campaigner on behalf of the region, for securing a 90-minute debate on that very subject in Westminster Hall on Tuesday.

Having spent quite a lot of my career covering such debates, it would be easy for me to write them off as so much hot air, but that would be an overly-cynical view even for me.

They may not change anything, at least in the very short term, and the ministerial replies may be invariably formulaic. But where they do succeed is in raising consciousness of an issue to the point where it becomes harder to ignore, and that sense they are vital.

It was clear from the start that this was a Budget that was particularly pernicious in its potential impact on the region.

Quite apart from the impact on Tyneside-based pasty-maker Greggs, one of its central recommendations was the introduction of regional pay rates, which would institutionalise regional income disparities in the public sector for no better reason than the fact that they already exist in the private sector.

Mr Mearns chose not to dwell on that particularly in his opening speech to Tuesday's debate, however, choosing to highlight some damning statistics about the effect of Mr Osborne's higher-rate tax cut and the government's spending priorities.

He revealed that, while in London, the South-East and East Anglia, nearly 195,000 taxpayers will reap the benefit of the tax giveaway, in the North-East the figure will be fewer than 5,000.

On transport spending, the disparities are even more alarming. Mr Mearns revealed that more than 160 times as much is being spent on transport infrastructure projects in London than in the North-East.

"Once more, the people of the North East are paying the price for an economic strategy made in and for the wealthier south," he said.

He didn't, as it happens, mention the proposed HS2 high-speed link, but although it has its supporters, my own view is that it is not necessarily the panacea that some say it is.

For one thing, it won't arrive here until 2032 at the earliest. For another, any economic benefits to the wider North are likely to migrate towards Leeds and Manchester, which will be getting the link a good half decade earlier.

But the most fundamental question that has to be asked of any Labour politician when raising the issue of the North-South divide is why the party did not do more to address it during its 13 years in power from 1997.

Ian Mearns at least can point to a consistent track record on that score. As a leading figure in North-East local government during the Tony Blair years, he was one of those who regularly highlighted that administration's failure to address the issue, while the likes of Nick Brown and David Clelland also argued strenuously behind the scenes for a better deal for the region.

But the party as a whole allowed Mr Blair to get away with two particular claims that, taken together, served fatally to undermine the case for a more proactive regional policy.

The first was that the differences within regions were as great as the differences between them. The second was that any attempt to rebalance the economy risked harming the Southern regions which were the main driver for the economy as a whole.

Whatever the merit of these arguments, they became, over time, an excuse for simply doing nothing.

In the words of its response to a 2003 report on the issue: "The government does not accept the proposition that increased public funding to the less prosperous regions is a necessary condition to improve their prosperity."

The sad truth of the matter is that New Labour had an historic opportunity to do something about regional economic disparities at a time when it had a fair political wind behind it and, crucially, public spending as a whole was rising.

For the Coalition to try to tackle the gap in the current economic environment is a much harder task.

free web site hit counter

No comments: