A deeply disappointing result in the referendum vote on a regional assembly for the North East of England, at least for those Northerners who support devolution.
696,519 (77.93%) voted against devolution, with only 197,310 (22.07%) voting in favour of an elected regional assembly to give the region a stronger voice.
That is a hammering and it is on such a scale that the idea of referendums for the North West and Yorkshire will surely be at the very best postponed. After all, in the consultation and soundings process it was the North East that showed the highest level of support.
The North West campaign has faced strong opposition already from key figures in the regional Labour Party and local MP’s and they will be celebrating this result despite the fact that it represents a rejection of their party’s policy.
So what next for those who support devolution for the North? I shall return to this later in more detail but a few points for now.
I agree with Jane Thomas, head of the ‘yes’ campaign in Yorkshire and Humber who said the campaign for regional assemblies has lacked “political vision and leadership.”
“One of the things that is abundantly clear, and something we will be saying to the government, is that people are not against the principle of ERA (elected regional assemblies) – they did not like the package. What will come out of this is that it was not strong or robust enough.”
Indeed, the most common criticism heard of the assemblies and one that clearly resonated with voters was that the bodies would merely be ‘talking shops’. Any future proposals must be for a devolution that involves real power and decision making over a wide-range of policy areas – even if that involves a radical rehaul of local government.
As for political leadership – wasn’t John Prescott left on his own a little over the referendums? There was little real support coming from over key figures in the Labour Party.
The best example for Northern devolutionists looking for new ideas (which I think we now have to) is Scotland. The Scots rejected devolution in the 1970’s but campaigners did not let the issue just disappear. They carried on fighting and kept making the case.
In doing so they did not limit themselves to hoping for support from the Labour Party leadership – they created a broad cross-party campaign involving different parts of civil society.
They were helped by the fact that the identity question is much easier to address in Scotland – a nation. There is a real problem of identification with regions such as the North West or even the North East. Perhaps it is time to go back to the drawing board and ask whether the idea of splitting the North into three was the right way to go?
I never liked that idea from the start but was willing to support it because I thought it was a possible first step towards self-governance for the North.
But when Northern democrats start to put their heads together about the long road forward from this defeat I’d like to see the notion of regional government for The North as a whole considered.