Why should proposals for elected regional assemblies interest those on the progressive left? The objectives of progressive politics are the pursuit of social justice, equity, pluralism and a vibrant democracy. These remain eternal goals for the left, but the means by which they will be achieved will change over time.
Regional devolution is a modern means to match economic growth with social justice and sustainable development.
England is marked by deep regional inequalities, which cause large economic imbalances and pose intensifying problems for both prosperous regions (such as congestion and inflationary pressures) and less prosperous regions (several of which are continuing to haemorrhage population).
While the socialist principle of solidarity remains vital, there is now recognition that the old top-down regional policies are insufficient. Strengthened regional institutions are required to build robust regional economies through the promotion of entrepreneurship, close relationships between universities and industry and accentuating indigenous industrial strengths – tasks beyond the capacity of individual local authorities.
A recent report from the National Audit Office showed how the efforts of Regional Development Agencies are undermined by too much Whitehall control. The implication of the report is that decisions about how RDAs operate should be made in the regions themselves if their strategies are to be effective.
The same is true of the large number of quangos working in the regions, which businesses in particular find impenetrable. Many millions of pounds of public money are dispensed in the regions in ways parliament barely scrutinises. These important decisions need to be made accountable with a view to how they contribute to long-term strategies for sustainable development in the regions.
The development of the regions is hampered by the powerful centripetal forces that operate in the UK. Reflecting on the recent decision by Granada TV to move its HQ from Manchester to London, Jackie Ashley wrote in the Guardian that ‘Britain is self-defined too much by people living in the M25 and too little by the rest’. Large companies in sectors such as the media typically find the pull of London irresistible as they seek the inside track to political and financial influence. Ashley suggested that powerful, democratically elected assemblies could begin to give voice to the potential of the regions and make their concerns heard inside the M25.
Douglas Alexander has argued in Progress that a central task facing Labour is the revitalisation of political institutions and the civic identities that underpin them. We need new and relevant institutions that can plan the way our communities develop beyond the district boundary – few people today live their lives around the parish pump.
Regional devolution should be about creating a modern structure of governance for the regions that strengthens their voice and allows them to make more decisions for themselves.
Social justice cannot be said to exist when there are deep and abiding regional economic disparities. Pluralism is undermined by the concentration of media and other institutions in London. Democracy is degraded when people in the north think that politics is something done elsewhere ‘to them, not with them’.
Promoting the economic, cultural and political fabric of the English regions is a big idea that the progressive left should embrace. Regional assemblies are not the ends but the tools by which we can start addressing some of the very real problems which exist in the UK.
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