The question at the heart of the devolution debate is still being ignored by politicians at all levels


Devolution, the running political wisdom of the day, is a good thing. And it many ways, it could be. After decades where regions – particularly those in the North – have felt short-changed by decisions taken in Westminster, it’s easy to understand why the political chattering classes believe it’s time for decisions to be made closer to the people impacted by them.

And so Greater Manchester is set to be first off the blocks with a style of devolution – a directly-elected mayor in addition to retaining 10 existing councils. He or she will, according to the Government, have significant clout over big issues such as housing strategy and transport.

Other regions are set to follow. The deal from the coalition appears to be this: Have an elected mayor across your ‘city region’ (a geographic region almost as nonsensical to many living within it as the ITV regions dictated by where TV masts are) and you can have a lot more power locally.

The tight run-in to the Scottish referendum gave them the London party leaders one heck of a fright – and forced ‘devo max’ back on to the agenda after David Cameron had insisted it had no place on the ballot paper. No wonder Alex Salmond felt miffed that with one week to go, ‘vote no’ suddenly became ‘vote no get more power because we get you don’t really like us in London.’

Within hours of the referendum vote being confirmed, Cameron suddenly put English devolution on the agenda too. Councillors who have made careers out of waving an angry fist at London and bemoaning ‘what if’ were suddenly excited. It is, city councillors and national politicians concluded, a good way of getting a better deal for local people and will make someone accountable for big decisions.

The Society of Editors conference this week discussed proposed devolution, and it is covered here on Hold The Front Page. The consensus appeared to be that there is little public appetite for it (devolution, not a discussion about it at the SoE conference!)

Data I see suggests there is a growing interest in politics on our websites. The Manchester Evening News broke the devolution in Manchester story and it made a significant impact on audience numbers.  Local election results coverage on the sites I work with attracted far more users this year than in previous years, although this could be due to many election counts taking place during the day when people are awake.

And there’s no doubt that having a directly-elected figurehead accountable for big decisions does focus minds, as opposed to an elected-by-default council leader. Just look at the 175 comments under this story about Liverpool’s mayor ditching plans to open a cruise terminal inside one of the Three Graces – after paying £15m for it. Salford’s directly elected mayor, Ian Stewart, also enjoys scrutiny from various local media, such as the MEN and the independent Salford Star.

But the people engaging with political stories regularly are a minority of the voting population, and there’s precious little evidence that people want more layers of politicians making decisions, even if they are taken more locally as a result.

Manchester Labour MP Lucy Powell, now Ed Miliband’s election advisor, recently said that Greater Manchester was ready for devolution – but needed to do more to improve voter turnout. Shouldn’t it be the other way round? Surely once voter turnout improves, councils have a mandate to ask for more powers?

In Manchester, turnout at the most recent elections was 37% on average. The council leader, Sir Richard Leese, attracted 80% of the votes cast in his Crumpsall ward – but only 29% turned out to vote. That is not particularly unusual. It’s the same in Newcastle, Sheffield, Liverpool and Birmingham, although few councillors can command the same share of the vote as Sir Richard.

Anyway, local election turnouts would suggest the voting public are at least as detached from their town hall politicians as they are from those in Westminster. Does it give them a mandate to sign up to change? Forcing a new level of government on an already apathetic public appears to be the preferred way of winning favour with an already disinterested public.

Much has been made of cross-party political co-operation to bring about devolution. Surely it would have been much braver for politicians locally to remind Westminster that any change in who is responsible for what should only be done with the support of the public.

But there’s perhaps a reason why we won’t be going to the polls to decide this anytime soon.

It’s a decade since the North East voted ‘no’ to a regional assembly. The North East, more than any other region, has reason to be aggrieved by the way it has been treated by Westminster. But a lack of confirmation from the Labour government of the time on what the assembly would actually be responsible for left yes campaigners – including The Journal, which I was political reporter for during part of the campaign – high and dry.

No-one can say for sure whether it was a no to devolution or a no to another tier of government. Voters in the North West and Yorkshire never got to vote – their referendum was pulled when it became clear there was no appetite for change at all in those regions. Many council leaders in those regions felt they were voting for Christmas.

But we do know from the various mayoral referendums held since the coalition came to office that very few cities could muster the support for them. The Birmingham Mail was an active campaigner for a mayoral election in the mid 2000s, and there was a vocal yes campaign led from within the business community at the last referendum but still those who voted said no.

Salford, mentioned above, voted yes, and Liverpool got a mayor too – but the council decided to bypass the public and just change. The promise then was more powers if you voted yes, although this became rather wooly when so many voted no, including Manchester, for that matter.

The solution to this apathy towards mayors and devolution appears to be to bypass the public altogether and for a bunch of politicians to decide amongst themselves how to divvy up power to look more in touch. The local councillors are driven by the belief that they know their areas better, and can make better decisions as a result. But why isn’t that belief translated into strong voter turnout?

Devolution surely only works if voters support it, and are engaged by it. The Scottish referendum showed it is possible to get people involved in politics it the politicians put in enough effort. The starting point south of the border should surely be: “Why are so few people bothering to vote?”


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