Why the north-east assembly went south
A vote against too many politicians, too few powers, or what?
On 4 November, the people of north-east England rejected government proposals for an elected regional assembly by the margin of four to one, on a respectable 48 per cent turnout. There were two main responses to the result, and both were as bad as each other. Either the people of the north-east were condemned for being too cynical to be interested in politics – or deputy prime minister John Prescott’s plans for regional devolution were condemned for not going far enough.
For some supporters of regional assemblies, this ‘was a vote against politics and the very idea of democratic government’ (1). According to the mayor of Middlesbrough Ray Mallon, this was a ‘vote against politicians’; while assembly advocate and former Olympic athlete Brendan Foster argued that at the polls ‘people said they do not trust politicians’ (2). Other assembly supporters disagreed. For Vidya Ram of the Hansard Society, the vote was not so much an expression of a lack of interest in politics, than of a lack of ‘meaningful chances to get involved in politics at a local, regional and national level’ (3). George Cowcher, chief executive of the north-east chamber of commerce, argued that ‘the proposals [on offer] were under-strength and sold the region short’ (4).
Both sides miss the fact that the push to revive local politics, which is led from the top of government, embodies a rejection of the mainstream political process. As such, localism can’t challenge people’s alienation from politics.
The popular rejection of regional devolution is unlikely to get in the way of the government’s plans for decentralising political authority. First off, it should be noted that the vote was not for or against the existence of an assembly. The north-east assembly was established back in April 1999, when the government created eight consultative regional assemblies in partnership with eight regional development agencies (5). The drive to devolve power will continue, regardless of popular demand. As one report noted, government ministers are determined to press ahead with radical reform packages to impose US-style elected mayors and give local communities more powers (6).
However, those who complain that regional bodies need real political power miss the point. Today there is a clear consensus that the devolution of power is the key to reviving the public’s connection to the political process (7). The local and the parochial are celebrated as vital to political identities. The north-east assembly claims that its role is to provide an effective voice for the region, representing its specific communities and interests and expressing its ‘clear identity: geographically, culturally and historically’ (8).
‘Localisation’ isn’t a reflection of regional dynamism. Instead, it stems from the exhaustion of central government. It is central government’s lack of a political project that makes the existing structures of power appear unwieldy and ‘out of touch’. Part of the aim of modern parliamentary government was to subordinate local interests and prejudices to the good of society as a whole – which was why reforms in the seventeenth century prevented MPs from being bound by instruction from their constituents, for example. The traditional ‘supremacy of Parliament’, the gathering of sovereignty in a single place, was considered crucial for the government to take effective political control across the realm.
In the past, it was conservatives who wanted to decentralise power, in order to weaken the potential ability of elected governments to change society. Today it is the incumbent regime that seeks to hand over control. Governments now seek to avoid responsibility for policymaking, striving to disperse their powers to higher transnational forums, such as the European Union (EU), or devolving them to regional bodies.
The political elite lacks a political programme with which to win over the public. By moving towards local devolution, the elite is attempting to avoid popular political engagement. It is hardly surprising that the public isn’t enamoured with the idea.
David Chandler is senior lecturer in International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His latest book is Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations, Palgrave 2004 (buy this book or read a sample chapter from Palgrave).
(1) Letters, Guardian, 6 November 2004
(2) ‘Getting the voters’ message’, Guardian, 6 November 2004
(3) Letters, Guardian, 6 November 2004
(4) ‘Getting the voters’ message’, Guardian, 6 November 2004
(5) See the North East Assembly website
(6) Peter Hetherington, ‘Defeat halts Prescott’s push for devolution’, Guardian, 6 November 2004
(7) See David Chandler, ‘Active Citizens and the Therapeutic State: The Role of Democratic Participation in Local Government Reform’, Policy and Politics, Vol.29, No.1, 2001, p3-14
(8) ‘The Voice for the Region’, North East Assembly
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