Saturday, October 16, 2010

Region losing its voice as cuts start to bite

The day after David Miliband stepped aside from the Shadow Cabinet and Nick Brown was axed as Chief Whip, a Newcastle Journal headline posed the question: "Has the North East lost its political voice?"

If that was a pertinent question to ask then in the wake of the departure from frontline politics of two genuine regional heavyweights, it is even more so now.

Since then, we have seen the Parliamentary Labour Party fail to elect any of the four North-East MPs who stood for the Shadow Cabinet while choosing no fewer than seven from Yorkshire and Humberside.

And on Thursday, final confirmation that One North East, the development agency which has presided over a regional economic renaissance, is among the 192 quangos being axed by the coalition government.

The contrast with the regional political scene of a decade ago could not be greater. We regularly saw five or six North-East MPs occupying seats around the Cabinet table – depending on whether Peter Mandelson was in or out at any given time.

Their value has been long debated. Tony Blair admitted in his memoirs that he dared not be seen to favour his home region, and at least one of those Cabinet ministers admitted the same to me.

There was also the now largely dismantled regional political infrastructure – ONE, the regional government office created under John Major, and the regional assembly made up of senior councillors and other representatives.

Later on, under Gordon Brown, the North-East had its own minister in Nick Brown. Now it does not even have a single MP in government, let alone someone dedicated to sticking up for its interests.

In retrospect, it is clear that a more concerted effort should have been made to get behind a single North-East candidate in the Shadow Cabinet elections, probably Helen Goodman as she came closest to being elected.

But as it has turned out, the region is fairly well-represented in the middle ranks of Labour leader Ed Miliband's new team unveiled last weekend.

Ms Goodman joins Kevan Jones, Sharon Hodgson, Roberta Blackman-Woods and new MPs Chi Onwurah and Catherine McKinnell as shadow ministers, while Alan Campbell has been promoted to Deputy Chief Whip.

None of them, as yet, has the parliamentary stature of a Nick Brown or a David Miliband, but at least there is hope there for the future.

But if new leadership is going to come from anywhere, it surely needs to come from within the region itself, and here the picture is much less promising.

The moreorless wholesale disappearance of region-wide political institutions has left a void which the coalition's plans for yet more elected mayors will not begin to address.

One of the arguments made at the time of the regional assembly referendum was that a future Conservative administration would find it harder to get rid of an elected body than a panoply of unelected ones.

In retrospect, this was surely right. After all, the coalition is not abolishing the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, even though those institutions cost many times more than the RDAs.

Hopes continue to linger that the government may yet allow the creation of a region-wide Local Economic Partnership to provide a single regional perspective where necessary.

But Whitehall's signals on this have been mixed to say the least and while Business Secretary Vince Cable may be supportive, it is clear that not all of his colleagues share his viewpoint.

Much of the debate around the governance of the North-East over recent decades has essentially been about the need for a distinctive regional political voice.

It is no exaggeration to say that, in a few short months, the coalition has managed to set back that cause by at least 20 years.

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Anonymous said...

9 regional assemblies in England would have been no match for nationalistic Scotland Wales and Ulster Nats who were once ulster unionists. English mp's are to busy appeasing the grasping aforementioned to be of any use to their constituents in England

Anonymous said...

'And on Thursday, final confirmation that One North East, the development agency which has presided over a regional economic renaissance, is among the 192 quangos being axed by the coalition government.'

Public sector jobs being described as economic renaissance,are you having a larf or just pissed?

Hendrick Olafsson said...

Aren't you pleased that the Government has cut yet another meangless quango. I am sure that the money will be better used elsewhere, or the reduced expenditure help underpin the reduction in out balance of payment deficit.
Why are you so concerned about it going? You weren't interested in a nice gracy-train job there were you?