It is Denis Healey who is credited with that eminently practical piece of political advice: "when in a hole, stop digging." John Prescott either does not recognise the hole he is in over regional assemblies, or lacks a shovel. It is really quite an achievement to unite in the same lobby against his proposals those who do not believe in regionalism, those who believe passionately in regionalism, and those who have no strong views but who believe in two tier local government. And, just in case this isn't a wide enough coalition, by going bull-headed for all-postal ballots - with even less safeguards than for the much manipulated postal ballots in last month's elections - he has also alienated those who believe in the secret ballot.
The case for regional assemblies is not complicated. It is based on the self-evident fact that there is a regional dimension in public policy making and in the administration of services. Just as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved institutions for their "regional" services, so the English regions need assemblies to make accountable the existing government structures in the standard regions. For decades in Yorkshire and Humberside we have had Whitehall's regional civil servants spread out in City House, cheek by jowl with Leeds City Station. In my time as a Councillor and MP these officials did an excellent job in promoting this region's needs to London, but they were responsible to Whitehall and Westminster and not in any sense to elected politicians in the region.
Similarly I believe that there is a self-evident case for elected local authorities to match each level of services demanded and deserved by local citizens. The structure of local government should not be dictated by its cost, though this is, of course, an important consideration, but by a recognition of the size of an area necessary to provide a given set of services. Clearly a police service requires a wider catchment area than the provision of a village hall. Some services, such as transportation and economic development, require a regional dimension, others, such as education and housing, require a large municipality, whilst recreation and community services are best served by a smaller local council. This ineluctably requires regional assemblies and two-tier local government, plus, where there is a clear demand, parish councils to run or influence parochial matters.
Inevitably there are a lot of compromises involved in determining the different boundaries, but the key principle is that for each service there should be a clear and, as far as possible, appropriate elected authority, avoiding at all costs both indirectly elected "joint boards", as now exist for police and fire services, and the insidious use of commercial companies, such as Education Leeds. The democratic principle is straight forward: the electors must be able to judge for themselves the quality of the public services they receive and to affect how they are to be administered through their vote at regular elections. This is what the international community demands for Iraq, Afghanistan and for every other country - why should we put up with less?
This may seem a utopian dream. It may well be so, but it lies at the heart of the regional assembly debate. Against all odds I am prepared to give Mr Prescott the benefit of the doubt and to accept that he actually wants genuine regional assemblies. This could well have been his original dream. If this is so, then he has been cruelly seduced by the centralist control freaks in his own party and by the Sir Humphreys of the civil service world. What he now plaintively tries to foist upon us conforms to none of these democratic rules. His regional assemblies would have no significant financial powers nor control over key policy areas devolved from central government. They would simply be debating chambers forlornly observing the continuing exercise of power elsewhere. Worse still, they will have been the unwitting agent of a further emasculation of local government. Their remuneration will, of course, as with local government, be in inverse proportion to their responsibilities!
There is one further important aspect of the proposed referendums on Prescott's Populist Panaceas and that is the sheer effrontery of disregarding all the evidence of manipulation of last month's all postal ballots. Indeed, he proposes to encourage further manipulation by abandoning the requirement for an elector to have his or her identity confirmed by a witness - a provision that might conceivably inhibit a few prospective electoral fraudsters. The Electoral Commission being about to be disregarded yet again, plaintively draws attention to its as yet unfinished and unpublished evaluation of those bits of postal balloting that can be examined. I am driven to the inexorable conclusion that this government deliberately set up the Electoral Commission, with its wholly unsatisfactory legislative base, and with a prohibition on anyone with an active involvement in politics being barred from membership, so that it could hide behind its image and end the consensus between the major parties that made British electoral administration the best in the world.
I want real regionalism and I want legitimate elections. The noises we are hearing from Labour worthies concerned at the consequences of a regional assembly débâcle suggest that this is not a lone view. The genuine case for regional assemblies should not be damaged by pressing on with referendums for pale imitations, based on unreliable electoral practices. If the Electoral Commission fails to get its own way yet again, it should resign en bloc on principle. And if John Prescott cannot stop digging the hole, then someone should dig one for him.
13 July 2004