Back from the dead? The new northern assembly campaign

  • 7 February 2012
  • From the section England
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John Prescott
Image caption John Prescott suffered humiliation in 2004 when voters rejected his idea for a North East regional assembly

The idea of a northern regional assembly looked to have died a painful death in 2004 when 78% of North East voters rejected the idea in a referendum.

But it seems some are intent on dragging the concept from the political grave and reviving it with some hefty jump leads.

Six northern Labour MPs wrote an open letter to The Observer newspaper this weekend suggesting it was time once again to consider having a northern political assembly.

Northern politics

None of the six are from the North East. Instead they are all from Yorkshire and the North West.

They are supporters of an organisation called the Hannah Mitchell Foundation.

It's named after a suffragette Labour campaigner, who was active in northern politics in the early part of the 20th Century.

The foundation has ambitions to be a forum "for the development of a distinctive democratic socialism in the north".

The group says it has no fixed ideas on what form of devolution is best for the north, and whether there should be regional assemblies.

But it does intend to gauge the evidence and collect opinion.

One of the MPs who wrote to The Observer was less equivocal though.

Huddersfield's Barry Sheerman said: "I am very passionate about this. The north has a much larger population than Scotland, and look at London, which has an assembly and a powerful mayor to protect its interests.

"With the scrapping of the regional development agencies, we don't have a body to deal with strategic problems and issues for the north."

Economic disparities

The MPs base their case on the growing economic problems in the north and what they see as its political marginalisation.

In their letter they say: "We are increasingly concerned at growing economic disparities within England as a result of cuts in public services, abolition of the regional development agencies and the coalition-induced recession.

"The debate over the future of the United Kingdom ignores the growing political marginalisation of the north of England, with a cabinet dominated by southern English politicians who seem to know little, and care even less, of the economic and social problems of the north."

But although there is evidence that the north is suffering more than the south economically, there is little to show that voters are keen on reviving the regional assembly idea.

Image caption The Salmond factor and the possibility of Scottish independence could help campaigners for an assembly in northern England

Some recent research by the IPPR think tank suggested only 10% of northern voters liked the idea, lower even than the 22% who voted in favour in 2004.

You have to suspect the same perceptions that torpedoed the campaign last time still exist.

People are likely to be concerned that it will create another layer of politicians, in an institution which will cost money to set up and sustain.

There are though three factors which might make some difference.

Firstly, while in 2004, the economy was booming, the north is now enduring high unemployment.

Secondly, there is a Conservative-led coalition in charge of the country today instead of a Labour government with a large representation of northern MPs.

And finally, there is the Salmond factor. There are already concerns that devolution has left the northern regions as poor relations of Scotland in terms of economic and political clout.

That could get even more marked if the Scots were to vote for independence or get extra powers.

Dismantling regions

There does though seem little prospect of the north being offered another bite at this particular cherry.

The coalition has been intent on dismantling the idea of regions since coming into office, with the abolition of development agencies and government offices.

Image caption The government believes handing extra powers to cities like Newcastle will solve the north's economic problems

Instead it sees the solution being devolution of powers to the country's biggest cities, including Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield.

It believes they can be handed extra powers to become drivers of economic recovery. They will also have the chance to have directly elected mayors through referendums in May.

And instead of political structures, it sees the tax incentives in enterprise zones and the money from regional growth fund grants as the best way of tackling the north's problems.

That though might not answer the democratic deficit argument.

The Conservatives failed to win the number of northern seats they'd hoped for in 2010.

That cost them the chance of being a majority government, and leaves them open to accusations they are a largely southern force. There has been little sign of electoral progress in the north since then.

But can voters really be persuaded that an assembly provides the answer?

The Hannah Mitchell Foundation's supporters only have to ask their patron about how difficult that might prove.

He's Lord Prescott - the architect of the 2004-model regional assemblies, and the politician who had to endure the humiliation of seeing voters blow a giant raspberry at the idea.