The Mayoral North of Tyne devolution deal is a waste of time

Two days ago, the North of Tyne combined authority elected their first regional mayor: Momentum-backed Labour candidate Jamie Driscoll. Gifted with £600 million across a thirty-year stint, the money provides the office with an annual £20 million to invest in infrastructure and job creation. Disqualified from legislating on local transport and housing, the incumbent will be prevented from addressing the issues affecting the region most. At best, the money will buoy a small number of large-scale, high-publicity projects unlikely to translate into wider prosperity.

Branded as a historic devolution deal guaranteed to level out regional divides, the project is the brainchild of George Osborne. Anxious to prevent his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ idea from being written-off as another never-to-be-fulfilled pledge by an insensitive Westminster politician, Osborne fed the authority enough funding to secure its approval in just three out of seven councils: Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle.

Unfortunately, Gateshead, Durham, Sunderland and South Tyneside’s abstention from the devolution deal assuaged the authority’s political bargaining power, and therefore purpose, from the outset. Even in the country’s most cash-strapped councils, hostility towards austerity continues to mitigate against the acceptance of tokenistic handouts or lacklustre devolution scams. Originally proposed as The North-East Combined Authority (NECA), Mr Osborne had offered a fund of just £900 million to be metered out over 30 years, equalling around 4.2 million per council per year (or 40p per person per week). That’s a drop in the ocean when compared to the scale of funding cuts (which, claims Gateshead Council’s Martin Gannon, have resulted in a £900 per-family spending reduction in Gateshead since 2010).

That being said, the North-East still finds itself in a dilemma: caught between a desperation to progress by any infinitesimal means possible, and the strong inclination to reject Conservative ‘charity’ on the basis that something better might eventually come along. It may appear that refusal to participate in devolution is illogical and self-sabotaging, because, as George Osborne made clear, this was ‘the only game in town.’ But many believe the post exists to force local councils into taking responsibility for funding cuts emanating from the top tier of government, creating local-level scapegoats to offset legitimate government criticism.

On top of this uncertainty, it’s also worth remembering that while ‘the North’ exists as a homogeneous, industrial mass for anyone who lives down South, it’s very multifaceted. It can’t be grouped together, politically or geographically, with any kind of ease. Durham and Sunderland, for one thing, are extensive in size: they have little affinity with their North-of-Tyne counterparts. Even Gateshead – just a stone’s throw away from Newcastle – feels like a different world entirely. The distance isn’t alleviated, either, by prohibitively expensive local transport links (especially buses), adding physical barriers to economic ones.

When it came down to the mayoral race itself, there ensued a second-round run-off between Labour’s Jamie Driscoll and the Conservative candidate Charlie Hoult, proving that this was never anything but a partisan struggle between the two largest, safest, political organisations. Smaller, more radical and experimental groups lacked the institutional backing, funds, or perhaps will, to put forward the £5000 deposit required for entrance into the candidacy (such as The North East Party and the Greens), also citing concerns about the post’s democratic credentials. Indeed, though the independent candidate made the process slightly more interesting, the absence of any women screamed anti-progressivism.

Far from an exhilarating and diverse electoral contest, then, the candidates seemed only halfheartedly engaged. They could afford to be, because no real power was at stake. Tyne and Wear Citizens, a local charity, set up a Citizens’ Assembly event the day before voters went to the polls. Here, Lib-Dem candidate John Appleby revealed, honestly but uninspiringly, that Newcastle’s met-mayor will have considerably less authority than its regional counterparts (in Manchester, or London for example). ‘That doesn’t mean I think the role is pointless, just that we shouldn’t over-promise or expect too much,’ he said, which basically meant, ‘I’m not over-promising because I think this role is pointless.’

The sad thing is, his scepticism is justified. The project is nothing but lip-service: it appears that up North, councils can’t be trusted with real power, and those dissatisfied with this state of affairs are punished via austerity for calling the government out on it.

I’ve got no problem with a People’s Vote campaign – just the campaigners

Last weekend was a biggie for Remainers: and didn’t the whole world know it.

A petition demanding the revocation of Article 50 – the process by which any country should wish to leave the European Union – gained enormous traction on national and social media; and a People’s Vote March raged through Central London demanding Brexit ‘be put back to the people.’

Admittedly, there’s nothing anti-democratic about a People’s Vote. It’s a feasible solution for breaking the Brexit deadlock once indicative votes have revealed which EU-exit route appears the most advantageous. But as a vehicle through which to overturn Brexit in its entirety? That’s anti-democratic.

It all boils down to an issue with the campaigners themselves. They’ve hijacked the People’s Vote as a bid for Remain rather than an opportunity to validate the initial result – and in doing so, they’re refusing to acknowledge the democratic will of half the population. And in doing that, they turn over that same half-population to the hands of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Initially, I hated Brexit. Why would my constituency, Gateshead, which relies on the EU for infrastructure investment, bite off the hand that feeds them?

But then I came to understand something that none of the People’s Vote Campaigners (PVCs) seem willing to grasp. A Leave vote might well have been disastrous, but it worked in making a statement. Though the PVCs may brand Leave-voters as political illiterates operating under the puppeteer-hand of the ‘far-right’, they can’t deny that they’ve definitely grabbed the attention of negligent governments and an over-mighty City service sector; who, for their part, appear callously oblivious to bitter regional divides.

It sounds very dramatic – but the reasoning is fair enough. That’s why I can’t quite wage war on Brexit the same way the PVCs have; and why I’m getting sick of sanctimonious marchers who think they’re doing the country an ounce of good by giving up their Saturday to wave around some cardboard.

Still, I’m fully aware that the North East is better off in the EU than outside of it. Left to the government alone, the North East will starve. The Confederation of British Industry has already bemoaned the scale of economic loss the region would be exposed to under a disorderly EU departure. But it’s really saying something when, despite knowing all this, people are still willing to make such a huge sacrifice to have their decision heard and implemented (with very few people who voted Leave actually changing their minds, regardless of what PVC-sponsored YouGov polls tell you).

Quite frankly, the People’s Vote campaign has become a self-sabotaging mess. Rather than argue, reasonably and democratically, for retention of reformed EU membership in order to enhance regional prosperity, level out national inequalities and hold a clearly-delusional government to account (you know, things which might actually persuade people to change their minds) – the selling point of the People’s Vote appears to be an immediate return to the status quo. The very thing that everyone voted against.

From up here – the status quo looks like a situation where affluent Southerners retain easy access to their continental homes, regain the £10,000 in value knocked off their London-properties, and avoid those inconvenient strikes on the Eurostar. But in that scenario, the North-East still receives no cultural funding or infrastructure investment, and former mining communities continue to be left to their own devices with minimal revenue support-grants from the government.

Nowhere is this alliance between the PVCs and well-off clearer than in the selection of allies they have chosen to champion their cause: Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve and Michael Heseltine – all Conservative (or formerly Conservative) MPs that have willingly supported austerity.

These are individuals that have consciously, in part, manufactured the divide that now exists between London and its peripheries. So, how are they supposed to fix it? Their love for the EU, weirdly enough, doesn’t outweigh the damage their party has waged on its own people. There’s something particularly disturbing in the way Michael Heseltine, former front-man to Thatcher, noted in his PV March speech that Maggie would be turning in her grave if she were alive to witness Brexit. Everyone cheered in response. Does that mean we now remember her as a sagacious Europhile, more so than as the architect of devastation in the very places that voted to Leave…?

And then, there’s the genuinely unforgivable assumption by PVCs that young people unanimously voted to Remain – with the consequence that non-university educated electors have been virtually ignored.

The PVC’s youth contingent is exclusively represented by young people of Our Future Our Choice and For Our Future’s Sake (OFOC and FFS). Unfortunately, while they might be eloquent and informed, both groups are hopelessly metropolitan organisations that claim, incorrectly, to speak for ‘young people’ as though they were one, singular, homogeneous, degree-level-educated and Erasmus-appreciating mass. Which, as we all know, they aren’t.

And rather than reach out to older people in deprived areas, who have seen their communities disintegrate around them – and have been led to believe this stems from immigration and open borders rather than by governmental neglect – the PVCs have paraded snobbish placards around the streets of London: taunting half of the electorate with tasteless witticisms that seem to suggest their bigoted stupidity.

One such placard boasted: ‘52% Pride and Prejudice; 48% Sense and Sensibility’. Hmm, maybe take a look in the mirror?

Labour MPs, for one thing, should not give into the PVC’s demands, but embrace what their constituents asked for (and with that I nod my hat to Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields). With a support base of which almost 70% voted to Leave, Labour’s proposal of retaining access to the customs union and ‘close alignment with the single market’ is the best option to pursue, lest they risk further entrenching a toxic national divide which is in nobody’s interests to perpetuate.

Ultimately, a People’s Vote should be a free-vote: where consensus from all sides of the political spectrum can be found regarding how to leave the EU. Currently, however, its proponents are damaging its credibility by way of their obstinate elitism – those same traits they so fervidly criticise when found among Brexiteers. And for that reason, the PVCs will never have my support. Not that they want it, anyway.