Democratic empowerment of our regions needs to become a political priority again
A few weeks ago, Progress and Labour First launched a campaign to introduce regional representation on Labour’s NEC. This is a significant move, not only because it would ensure better representation from across the country on Labour’s governing body, but also because it recognises that regions are a vital missing link in the geography of England’s economy and democracy.
England’s regions do far more than provide us with a unique history, culture, identity and natural assets. They also represent a forgotten space for economic and democratic decision making, despite being best placed to respond to global economic, and national democratic challenges.
However, there is no doubt that this is contested territory. Speaking in 2008, Eric Pickles declared that regional development agencies (established under Tony Blair’s government) ‘are a terrible unit for economic development. In terms of our plans for quangos, you could possibly say we were looking toward restructuring them – in a similar fashion to Anne Boleyn’. Memo to all politicians – don’t compare any policy change to murdering women. Within a year of becoming secretary of state for communities and local government, Pickles abolished RDAs and was reported to have taken the somewhat drastic step of banning the word ‘region’ from his department.
While they may not have been universally popular, it was in fact during the existence of RDAs that England saw a narrowing of the productivity gap between London and the regions for the first time in a century. This is hardly surprising, given that academic studies show that the most successful economic areas in the 21st century global economy comprise of between six and twelve million people. Unlike almost every other economically successful nation state, outside of London and Scotland we do not have regions of this size: England is too big, and our city-regions are too small.
It is in this context that it seems significant that at the EU referendum, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London, all with a significantly more visible and autonomous form of regional or devolved government, voted to remain, while those without that the same level of regional economic or democratic control were more likely to vote leave. It could be argued that this feeling of being left behind and shut out by democracy in the UK played a part in leading voters to seek to ‘take back control’.
What is clear is that England is not a grouping of homogenous regions. Each has its own unique cultures, economies and with that, its own political challenges. There is no agreed shape or scope for a new English settlement. But with meaningful devolution, particularly of industrial strategy, each region of England should be given the ability to act upon its own unique challenges and priorities.
The economic and democratic case for recognition of English regions is too compelling to ignore. Now is the time to give regions their voice. Regional representation on political parties’ governing bodies could be a symbolic first step.
Rosie Corrigan is media and campaigns manager at IPPR North. She tweets @Rosie_Corrigan
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.