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Regional democracy and PR go hand in hand

Regional Democracy goes hand in hand with Electoral Reform

Jenny Cronin and Ying Ho, Hannah Mitchell Foundation, posted February 13th 2021

To achieve prosperity and equality in Northern England, it is imperative that central government funding is more equally distributed among the regions, and that the priorities of development are controlled at the regional level. To establish fairer and inclusive regions, a fundamental change in the electoral system is necessary to bring about a more representative democracy. An electoral system that will ensure a long term, consensus-building approach to policy making is necessary, instead of the current short term, confrontational approach under the first past the post (FPTP) system.

According to the Electoral Reform Society, over 70% of the votes in the 2019 General Election were wasted; meaning that under 30% of the votes determined the outcome of the election. With only 43.6% of the votes, the Conservatives formed a government with a majority of 80 seats. The current government does not represent the majority of those who cast their votes. And yet, government policies are determined by ‘unearned majority rule’. To campaign for democracy in Northern England, the current FPTP system must be replaced by a more democratic system to bring diverse voices from different political persuasions, namely a proportional representation system that will make every vote count.

The current Conservative government has indicated an interest in devolution of powers to English regions, and a White Paper on devolution is being prepared. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office Minister, was quoted as saying that “The appropriate thing is to recognise that what is right for London might be slightly different from what is right for Greater Manchester and that will certainly be different from what is right for Devon or for Surrey”.  Judging by the unfair allocation of public spending in the English regions over the years, devolution under the current system will not bring any real changes to the Northern regions.

It has been well documented that regions in Northern England do not receive the same level of investment and public spending compared to London and the South East. According to IPPR North, over a ten-year period, the average annual public spending on transport was £739 per head in London, 2.4 times more than the amount in the Northern regions (£305 per head). Likewise, the spending on economic affairs in London and the South East was 37% of England’s public spending, compared to 25% in the Northern regions in 2018-19.

The budget cut for Transport for the North (TfN) is the latest example to show how the whim of Westminster dictates infrastructural development in the north. TfN will lose 40% of its core funding in the next financial year and there will be no funding for the rollout of a Northern Oyster (contactless payment systems). When TfN was launched, it was hailed as a game changer for regional devolution. TfN is a partnership of 19 Councils and business leaders but unlike Transport for London, it lacks the power to raise capital and thus depends on central government funding.

To redress the regional imbalance of resources distribution, it is beyond any doubt that establishing regional democracy is a necessary step forward. While the most appropriate approach to devolution is open to debate, the form of voting system will also be an important element in bringing about true democracy in the regions. Indeed, in all the devolved nations in the UK, the FPTP system has either been ditched or supplemented by some form of proportional representation.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) provides a good analysis of different voting systems across the world. In most western democracies, some form of proportional representation is adopted for both national and local elections. The UK is the outlier, still retaining the crude FPTP system for the General Elections, leading to the least democratic outcomes.

There are, however, encouraging signs that changes in the electoral system are gaining traction. Within the Labour Party, local constituencies have started discussions on proportional representation. According to Make Votes Matter, a national campaign for proportional representation, over 130 Labour constituencies have passed motions to call upon the Party to support proportional representation

For the debate for regional democracy, it is worth looking into current voting systems in the devolved nations. The Northern Ireland Assembly adopts the Single Transferable Vote system. Each political party can put forward a number of candidates on the ballot paper. Voters will indicate their preferences by ranking the candidates.

In both the Scottish and Welsh Parliament elections, there is a combination of two voting systems i.e. FPTP and Party List, known as Additional Member System. Voters are presented with two ballot papers. The first one provides a list of candidates, one per each party. The candidate with the most votes will be elected. The second one is a list of parties; the party with the most votes will be elected. A list of candidates for each party is published in advance of voting.

In Scotland, there are eight electoral regions, each providing seven regional parliamentary members – a total of 56 MSPs. The remaining 73 MSPs are elected by FPTP system and they are known as constituency MSPs. In Wales, there are five electoral regions, each providing four Senedd members – a total of 20. The remaining 40 members are elected by FPTP.

Proportional representation is also practised at local elections in the devolved nations. In Scotland, it is Single Transferable Vote. In Wales, the Senedd just passed the local elections bill to introduce Single Transferable Vote in future council elections. After the 2021 election, the Welsh Parliament is also planning to introduce Single Transferable Vote for Senedd elections, thus unifying the voting systems at national and local levels.

The voting systems in the devolved nations are leading the way to a more representative democracy. There are pros and cons to each electoral system, and the system to be adopted in devolved regions is certainly open to debate. One thing is clear – it is about time for the UK to ditch the FPTP system for the General Elections and to replace it with proportional representation. And on the journey to regional democracy, proportional representation must be a companion of the campaign, in order to establish fairer and inclusive regions.

Reference documents:

Electoral Reform Society (March 2020) Voters Left Voiceless

IPPR North (2020) Ten Years of Austerity – Eroding Resilience in the North

IPPR North (2019) Divided and Connected – State of the North 2019

Transport for the North (2021) Transport Budget Cuts Threaten Levelling-up Agenda

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Another England is Possible

Another England is possible: a Northern response to ‘The English Question’

Paul Salveson (in a personal caapcity)

This paper argues that the quest for a ‘progressive English’ politics that doesn’t recognise the nation’s regional diversity is a dead-end. It makes the case for an ‘England of the Regions’ with a new democratic settlement founded on regional assemblies elected by PR. It makes the case for developing new , progressive policy networks (‘ideas mills’) which may be regionally-based – but which talk to each other and similar fora in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. These networks must have deep roots in their communities, reflecting regional distinctiveness. Keir Starmer’s apparent tilt towards ‘patriotism’ is unlikely to win support in the North but could well lose members across the UK. There is an alternative, based around progressive regionalism which embraces the strong radical traditions in different parts of Britain.

The Holy Grail of ‘Progressive Englishness’

The quest for a ‘progressive English politics’ has become a growing trend recently amongst sections of the English Left. Recent articles in The Guardian and Observer suggest that ‘re-capturing’ English identity from the Right could be key to Labour re-building its popularity in a post-Brexit world. Writing in The Guardian recently Andy Beckett suggests that the nature of Englishness matters – “not least because a less prickly and entitled version would be better for our neighbours. And it might even stop a lot of the English from feeling like foreigners in their own land.” [1]

There’s much to agree with Andy’s arguments, which recognises that the nature of England has changed dramatically in the last few decades and our relationship with a potentially independent Scotland needs to be carefully defined so that a vindictive and reactionary nationalism doesn’t take hold in England. In a subsequent piece in The Observer [2] Julian Coman is more specific about how a progressive Englishness could be articulated. Illustrated by a photo of ‘quintessential England’ – a rural English church with the flag of St George flying next to it – Julian takes us on an ‘English Journey’ which culminates in the idea of an English Parliament which would sit, comfortably we must assume, with devolved or independent governments for Scotland and Wales.

Professor John Denham of the Centre for English Identity at the University of Southampton joins in, condemning ‘the Left’ for its neglect of English identity suggesting “That this more liberal Englishness still lags behind multicultural Britishness is in large part because the Left has shunned English identity or promoted reactionary caricatures of it (perhaps like the photo used in The Observer story). Where British multiculturalism combined grassroots demands for inclusion with state endorsement, Englishness has had no such support. The surprise is not how little Englishness has changed, but how much. But it has too often been left to sports people – most recently Marcus Rashford, perhaps – to embody this developing Englishness. The engagement of political leaders and the state in shaping English identity – as Scotland’s leaders have done with Scottish identity – is long overdue.”[3]

To a limited extent they are right, though the deeply embedded conservatism within ‘English’ culture can hardly be blamed on the Left for failing to engage with it. It’s inherently reactionary, reflecting England’s ‘great’ imperial past and all that went with it. One of the strong slogans of the Leave campaign was ‘take back control’. But for most of us, we were never in control in the first place. It was England’s ruling class that had control, and still largely does, though how ‘English’ it is in these days of global capitalism is questionable.

The political conclusion of their arguments for ‘progressive Englishness’ is deeply worrying. A unitary English Parliament would stimulate what the Scots-born Irish republican James Connolly, in a different context, called “a carnival of reaction”. Not only would it even further institutionalise the political dominance of England’s south and embolden a very nasty strain of right-wing Toryism, it would drive a very large wedge between us, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  Any sort of federation between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and a unitary England would inevitably be dominated by England, which numerically alone would vastly outweigh its would-be federal partners. It would re-inforce the current concentration of power in London and the south-east and leave the North of England even more marginalised and excluded. It would set in stone the supremacy of English Toryism at its worst. A ‘left-wing’, or even mildly progressive, English nationalism is fool’s gold and will end in tears.

 ‘The Left’ and questions of identity

Much is made in all three contributions about what is seen as a coherent view of ‘the Left’ assuming a coherent political movement embracing a particular set of attitudes, including hostility to ‘England’ and ignorant of ‘place’ and ‘identity’. I’d argue that’s mistaken in many ways. Hostility to ‘English nationalism’ doesn’t have much theoretical underpinning, but is an understandable reaction to the re-emergence of a nasty form of right-wing Toryism. There isn’t, and probably never has been, a cohesive ‘Left’ with an agreed set of values, ideas and assumptions, at least in England. Scotland and Wales do have their networks and institutions which are developing some exciting approaches to their national political debates, such as Common Weal in Scotland and the Bevan Foundation in Wales. But what of England itself?  Perhaps the Communist Party came nearest to providing it but that has long gone as a serious political force.  E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, A.L. Morton and others celebrated the radical strand within English history which sat comfortably with progressive traditions in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. [4]

The Labour Party itself has never really cared for intellectuals, still less a cohesive grouping of them that might influence policy. The Independent Labour Party tried to develop that role but its decision to ostracise itself from the mainstream in the early 1930s consigned it to irrelevance. Subsequently, groups around The New Reasoner (former CP’ers like E.P. Thompson, John Saville and others) did good work in developing a ‘British’ democratic socialism in the late 1950s but its influence didn’t stretch very far. The same goes for the work of intellectuals such as Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn in the early days of New Left Review. Both were highly scathing of the narrowness of ‘British Labourism’.

Today, what thinking there is amongst socialists tends to revolve around those bastions of London-based middle-class progressivism, The Guardian and The Observer as well as New Statesman. And there are some talented writers, including Paul Mason, Andy Beckett, Julian Coman and others.

But it’s very much a ‘metropolitan Left’ centred around London and its social networks.  There’s not much else; you’d struggle to think of a left-wing magazine in England that isn’t published (and largely written) from London. As Marx said, your material being – including where you live! – determines your consciousness.

What often strikes me about much of this London-based Left is its general lack of understanding and knowledge of the country in which they live, outside of the capital. This was evident during the referendum on Scottish independence and subsequent attempts to rebuild Labour support in Scotland, typified by Starmer’s very poor speech on devolution recently, which seemed entirely about winning back support north of the border. In a way, London political commentators (of the Left Centre or Right) have at least as limited an understanding of England as they do of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

This lack of understanding or empathy with the English regions runs deep and isn’t compensated by pleas from some London-based political writers about their ‘Northern/Scottish/Welsh’ (delete as applicable) roots. They exemplify what has been termed by David Goodhart as ‘people from nowhere’, counter-posed to ‘people from somewhere’, who had a real identity with their place. [5]Goodhart overstates his case by equating ‘people from somewhere’ too closely with Leave voters – reality is and was more complex. But he has a point.

Much of the media reporting of the North by the London media is often a condescending and stereotypical  ‘day return journalism’ with writers doing their best to spend as little time as possible away from home. The demise of most ‘regional correspondents’ in the national media has been a further nail in the coffin of balanced and intelligent reporting of the North and other English regions. Patronising and stereotypical views of ‘The North’ remain entrenched and acceptable within a London media culture that would think twice before patronising black or gay people. The North of England, as well as Scotland and Wales, remains ’fair game’. We are seen as Leave-voting, socially conservative born-again Tory voters, grovelling amidst the ruins of the ‘red wall’ (see below).

Good and bad nationalism

Let’s step back a bit and compare different ‘nationalisms’. I’ve some sympathy for the classic Marxist analysis which drew a clear distinction between the nationalism of ‘oppressed, colonial nations’ (good) and the nationalism of the colonising nations (bad). Crude maybe, but not wrong.  England, not by any means a small country with a population of 56 million, has spent centuries dominating and robbing other countries, including its immediate neighbours. The sun may have finally set on the British Empire but many of the attitudes, and racial stereotypes that went with them, are still very much alive. They were given a fresh airing during and after the Brexit campaign and have not gone away. Its politics is right-wing English nationalism and its institutional expression would ultimately be found within an English Parliament. We already see the visceral hatred of the SNP and the hatred of Nicola Sturgeon by the Anglo Right.

It will get much worse. For progressives within England, the last thing we should do is to help with this demonization of Scottish nationalism. [6]If Scotland wants to become an independent nation, that is for Scotland (and not the UK as a whole) to decide. But we can have a view – mine would be that many of the advantages of independence – and more – could be gained by a confederal British Isles with each part of the federation being equal. That would mean the English regions having separate representation, but clear protection for Scotland, Wales and Ireland who would otherwise be outvoted by ‘England’ in its regions. In reality, the Northern regions may decide to align more closely with Scotland and Wales than the southern English regions. Who knows, but I suspect there is more sympathy for Scotland across the North than we often assume.[7]

Nobody is saying England is awful (but it could become so)

Like many northern regionalists, I love many aspects of England including its rich diversity and radical history which includes but goes well beyond London. The North can take credit for much of what was and often still is good about England, but by no means all of it: the beauty of its landscape, its ingenuity and industry; its music, painting, architecture, science, literature and engineering. Many of these achievements were not seen as specifically ‘English’ so much as part of a Great Britain and an empire which had emerged triumphant but drastically weakened in its war against fascism.

A strong British economy with major centres of industry in the North of England, South Wales and the central belt of Scotland compensated for the structural inequalities, including the centralisation of political power, between London and the rest of the UK. When that traditional industrial base collapsed, from the 1980s, it marked the beginning of the end for ‘Great Britain’, at least as we know it. The end of Britain, whether we mourn it or not, does offer real opportunities, with a very different ‘England’ working positively with Scotland, Wales and Ireland (north and south, but re-unification is beginning to look like a serious possibility) as well as Europe.

We must not succumb to an England of the stereotypes – of the village green and the quaint church with the flag of St George flying high. That awful term ‘quintessentially English’ has no room for the North, nor for urban, multi-cultural London and Birmingham. And a ‘North’ which is patronisingly referred to, in lower case, as ‘the north’, the land of what was ‘the red wall’ (but never really was, except in the imagination of London journalists. [8]

We need to create a new England which is re-balanced, with the historic exploitation of its regions reversed. The germ of a decentralised, progressive England is already there and it has been highlighted – perhaps clumsily – by the proponents of ‘progressive Englishness’. Here I can agree with Andy Beckett and Julian Coman. Another England is possible, but it’s an England of the regions.

An England of the Regions

What could an ‘England of the regions’ mean in practice? The alternative to a unitary, centralised English Parliament should be a new, de-centralised England which reflects the regional diversity of the country and sits comfortably with its neighbours. [9] Could ‘English regionalism’ be just as reactionary as English nationalism? Experience from elsewhere in Europe, suggests not. [10]

Regionalism tends to be inclusive and socially progressive, with no imperialist baggage.  When I was campaigning for the small regionalist party Yorkshire First (now The Yorkshire Party) I found that regional identities were predictably strong in white working class communities but also in working class South Asian communities. Regional identity can be a very unifying force.

And it’s ‘identity’ which is key. We need to re-think the ‘regional’ map of England and not take the post-war regional boundaries (through the standard planning regional structure) as given. People’s identities are as important as what works economically. Some English regions form an obvious shape – Yorkshire and its neighbour the North-East being perhaps two of the most obvious. Others, including the North-West, don’t. We should be careful of drawing arbitrary distinctions which ignore people’s strong sense of identity – which is one of the biggest cards that regionalism has to play. And there’s no doubt that ‘identity’ is a tricky thing, with people having identities that are national, regional, local and neighbourhood; as well as ‘European’ and wider.

Within ‘The North’ regional identity is often strongest at a lower level than ‘The North’. As Ian Martin has argued: “…it is important to recognise that for many people in Yorkshire, their primary sense of identity is not Northern or English, but Yorkshire. English parliament supporters often point to the 2011 census and use it to suggest increasing numbers of people in Yorkshire feel primarily English. In reality however, the census doesn’t give people in Yorkshire a fair opportunity to identify with identities other than ‘English’ or ‘British’. When the option to identify as Yorkshire is given, as described by Pete Woodcock[11], the overwhelming majority identified as ‘Yorkshire’ with only a smaller proportion identifying as ‘English’ as well. The most common identity was ‘more Yorkshire than English’ and around 15% of residents surveyed rejected the idea of English identity completely.”

My gut feeling is that a similar response would come from Lancashire (including some of  those parts which are now in Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cumbria), if people were asked. The mayor of ‘North of the Tyne’, Jamie Driscoll, captured a sense of regional versus ‘English’ identity in the North-east when he said recently “Up here, we talk about defending the North-east. Bringing up the union – well, that’s a reminder of the Establishment down south, isn’t it?”[12]

So perhaps a revived and enlarged ‘Lancashire’ alongside Merseyside and Cumbria would be an option instead of a ‘North-West’ region which few people identify with. The obvious solution is to ask people, using citizens’ assemblies and other grassroots participative approaches rather than the blunt instrument of a referendum which would easily be swayed by the media, as we saw in the North-East in 2004 (still held up by centralists as a reason why ‘regional democracy’ is not wanted).

Re-balancing Britain

England, and its creation ‘The British State’, will take some shifting. The catalyst will be Scottish independence, which will result, by default, with what is essentially an ‘English Parliament’ with Wales as a perhaps unwilling appendage. Cracks are already beginning to show in the North, with the emergence of small regionalist parties and most recently the new ‘Northern Independence Party’ (NIP) which is essentially a civic nationalist party based around a national identity (‘Northumbria’) which currently doesn’t exist.  But as we know, ‘nations’ are created and perhaps in the future a ‘Northumbrian’ identity will emerge. There’s a very long way to go. In the long-term, an independent ‘North’ might happen. For now, it seems a very long way off, but if NIP can snap at the heels of Labour and push it towards a more pro-Northern approach, fine. For the foreseeable future, I could live with the idea of a ‘federal England’ within a confederation which includes Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland – with hopefully the Republic as a close friend and ally.

A confederal Britain could emerge as an alternative to the complete break-up of the UK. But it should be a ‘confederation’ of nations and regions’, not a supposed federation in which Westminster remains in ultimate control. [13]

For the time being, Labour, with the Lib Dems and Greens, should get behind the idea of regional democracy and move beyond the city-region mayoral model. It’s undemocratic and unaccountable; only the figurehead is elected, a step back even from the days of the metropolitan county councils. The role of cross-party regionalist groups such as Hannah Mitchell Foundation and ‘Same Skies West Yorkshire’ are particularly important in winning broad support as well as developing new ideas and different ways of thinking/doing stuff.

The North needs its own ‘left’ that can develop new approaches to regional politics and culture, but a very inclusive ‘left’ that goes beyond just the Labour Party. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation is an example of one attempt to do that, Same Skies (in Yorkshire) another. It’s about collaboration and learning from elsewhere – the civic nationalism of Scotland and Wales, but also progressive regionalism in other parts of the world. London itself, with its vibrant culture and socially liberal politics, should be a positive partner – but not an over- dominant one – in a re-alignment of progressive politics. We need to talk to each other more, even if it’s by zoom.

In turn, a regional Left needs to feed in to regional consciousness through very practical means, through regional institutions including parties, unions, voluntary sector and universities. This is a contemporary take on the Italian Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, and his idea of ‘the organic intellectual’. In his case, the organic intellectual was the Party which brought together the industrial working class and the intelligentsia, with political theory translated directly into the party’s practice. It wasn’t a particularly democratic model – but we could make it so.

The threat of an English Parliament is real. As Ian Martin of Same Skies said “we must take every opportunity to build our capacity now so that we are prepared for the day when an English Parliament refuses to look our way.” Fair point Ian, but we must do our best to prevent that happening at all. This means arguing strongly against the lurch towards English nationalism which Keir  Starmer appears to be toying with. As Jamie Driscoll commented, “there’s no way he can do that flagwaving better than the likes of Nigel Farage.” Labour can appeal to the so-called ‘red wall’ constituencies in the North, but attempting to cloak itself in the Union Jack will be seen as opportunistic and slightly ridiculous. Yet the North has its own strong progressive traditions based around co-operation, community solidarity and a distinct form of ‘ethical socialism’ which is waiting to be interpreted for the 21st century.[14]

In the North, we need to develop a regional culture and consciousness  which includes an alternative body of thinking that is progressive and inclusive. In effect, a kind of collective ‘organic intellectual’ which is part of a regional community/ies and not dependent on the patronage of London-based media. Less a ‘think tank’, more an ‘ideas mill’. The North – and the regions within it – are slowly starting to wake up and the recent spat between Andy Burnham and Boris Johnson, and the huge groundswell of support which Burnham generated, shows that a regional consciousness is starting to stir. As yet, it struggles to find a political expression but it’s there for Labour to grasp. If it doesn’t , others will. The journey might just end with an independent Northumbria. A big part of me hopes it doesn’t, but I’d love a confederal British Isles.

[1] Guardian, January 8th 2021

[2] Julian Coman ‘Proud to be English: How can we shape a progressive patriotism?’ The Observer January 17th 2021

[3] John Denham, Guardian January 12th 2021

[4] E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, 1963. The title itself is revealing, so too A.L. Morton’s A People’s History of England, 1938). Thompson had an acute understanding of regional distinctiveness and his book is strongly based on working class struggles in the North, particularly Lancashire and the West Riding.

[5] David Goodhart People from Somewhere 2019

[6] See the thoughtful piece by Neal Lawson https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/scottish-independence-labour-party-union-future

[7] Following the independence referendum there was some on-line polling which showed a lot of support amongst people in the North of England for the North to merge with Scotland! Probably not the right answer to the North’s problems, but interesting all the same.

[8] See Paul Salveson in Chartist, April 2020  https://www.chartist.org.uk/whats-all-this-red-wall-stuff/

[9] See Paul Salveson Socialism with a Northern Accent – radical traditions for modern times 2012. More recently, Alex Niven in New Model Island (2019) has argued for progressive regionalism.

[10] See Ian Martin A Journey that ends  in Northumbria, 2021

[11] https://theconversation.com/cornwall-and-yorkshire-show-regional-identities-run-deep-in-england-too-41322

[12] Quoted in The Guardian February 3rd 2021

[13] See https://www.diffen.com/difference/Confederation_vs_Federation for basic differences between a confederation and a federation

[14] See my Socialism with a Northern Accent – radical traditions for modern times 2012

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Arguments for PR

On the Road to a Proportional Representation Voting System

Jenny Cronin, Hannah Mitchell Foundation

It’s over a year on from the December 2019 General Election and we are living through the Covid19 pandemic with a Conservative government. At that time in 2019, with Brexit in the mix of factors for voters to consider in deciding who and what to vote for, the First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system demonstrated its blunt inadequacies. The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) produced a report on that election ‘Voters Left Voiceless’ and it gives ample statistical and qualitative analysis of the outcomes and provides a vivid case study of what happens when under such a system. The descriptions below give just snapshots from it and also from campaigning group Make Votes Matter.

Through FPTP the Conservatives gained an extra 48 seats on a 1.3% increase in vote share and a majority of 80 seats in the Commons. Parties other than Conservative and Labour won a quarter of votes cast but they attained less than 13% of the seats. A striking example is that of the Greens who nationally won over 865,000 votes but elected just one MP. These are just a few hints which show how unequal FPTP is in the results it brings. It’s worth reading the whole report.

ERS supports Proportional Representation. Their analysis indicates that over all the UK more than 22 million votes (70.8%) were of no consequence because their candidates of choice were not elected OR were surplus to what the elected candidate needed. Smaller Parties across the whole country – Liberal Democrats, Green Party, Brexit Party continue to be disadvantaged. For example, for the Liberal Democrats an 11.5% vote share across Britain yielded 1.7% of Commons seats.

So by contrast what would be beneficial for the voters and fairer for the candidates if a method of Proportional Representation were to be used in Party Political elections?

First of all there are a number of models and other starting points for arguing the case for Proportional Representation (PR). Make Votes Matter (MVM) also campaigns For PR and on their website points to how in 2019 even a big party like the Labour Party had to gain over 50,000 votes to elect each MP while the Conservatives needed only 38,000. In a fairer more proportional, voting system each vote would have equal value and it would take roughly the same number of votes to elect each MP. There are a number of more proportionally representative voting systems across the world. The ERS website has some enlightening pages which use the same descriptors to analyse 9 different systems used in different parts of the world.

Electoral Reform Society www.electoral-reform.org.uk/voting-systems/types-of-voting-system/

The features tracked are: Proportionality, Voter Choice, Local Representation. It provides some interesting insights to move the debate further on what would be a better voting system than First Past The Post and continue the debate positively.

Sources: Electoral Reform Society – publication –Voters Left Voiceless, Make Votes Matter www.makevotesmatter.org.uk

Next post on the subject of Proportional Representation and fairer voting systems will look at the different models from around the world.

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A Journey that ends in Northumbria?

A journey that ends in Northumbria?

by Ian Martin (Same Skies)

Summary

I knew that we’d been let down. I knew that our talent and our ideas and our potential was being wasted. I knew that things were starting to change in Scotland so I thought I knew what I wanted – a Yorkshire assembly elected by PR on the Scotland model. I thought that partially because I thought that East Leeds may remain part of the UK and EU. So I thought that to challenge London Hegemony, we needed to build our autonomous civil society where we are, we needed to build Regional Democracy from below to meet any devolution coming down from above. I still know what I don’t want – East Leeds to be subject to the whim of a unitary English Parliament. Given how Brexit has concentrated even more power for the foreseeable future in the hands of Westminster, especially those with the least interest in addressing regional and other inequalities, I accepted that Regional Democracy for now meant engaging with the election and role of the West Yorkshire metro mayor as a building block. But given Brexit and likely Scottish Independence, there is a danger of an English Parliament as part of an independent England. It may be that eventually there is a federal England. But not soon. And it will be on the terms of enthusiasts for the idea of England. And so maybe the future is an independent Northumbria? An independent Northumbria that empowers regional democracy within and builds a positive relationship with other states, including as part of the EU. Maybe that’s what I want now. But how do we get there? Before independence makes it almost impossible, how do we make sure that the institutions at the heart of London Hegemony recompense Yorkshire and the North for the way in which their decisions and actions have made them comfortable at the expense of people and their prospects here? I still think building regional democracy has a key role to play, building on the basis of the tiny amounts of devolution already in existence to develop autonomous civil society capacity and to advocate strongly and convincingly for justice prior to and after Northumbria or England becoming independent states. A civil society that doesn’t only consist of white men. Regional Democracy in Yorkshire and the North and independence for Northumbria don’t have to be incompatible if we don’t want them to be. And that is my hope for East Leeds.

 

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Introduction

Back in 2014, I stood in awe of what I had seen in Scotland. But I wasn’t standing in Scotland. I was standing here. In East Leeds. I stood up where I live and asked some questions[1]. Questions inspired by the democratic renewal and quest for inclusion that appeared to be a clear outcome of people living in Scotland being asked a question themselves. A question of what kind of country they wanted to live in. A question of self-determination.

So I asked what kind of region we wanted to live in[2]. I asked this question because I was aware that if we wanted to do things differently, if we wanted to do things better, we had to find a way to act beyond the scope of London Hegemony[3]. At that time, I hoped East Leeds might remain part of the European Union[4]. Even though I understood why many in Scotland wanted to leave the United Kingdom, I also thought that East Leeds was likely to remain part of an EU member state called something like the ‘United Kingdom’.

Since 2015, I have had the pleasure of having fun alongside some brilliant people who all live and work here in West Yorkshire asking our fellow residents that first question (such as in Manningham in November of that year[5]) and developing our vision for Regional Democracy (as described in our book from 2019[6]). Over the last few months, Same Skies have been developing our Alternative Manifesto Process for the planned election of the first West Yorkshire metro mayor in May 2021[7].

But now things are different, now that Brexit and an independent Scotland are close, I need to ask myself if Regional Democracy will be enough. In particular, whether our vision for Regional Democracy could survive if East Leeds was part of an independent England. We may have no choice, it may be a default outcome of state failure. But what if it’s not what we want. Could we, should we, look at alternatives?

The idea of England

There are many people whose vision for progressive politics includes the idea of an English Parliament, many in fact who are inspired by Scotland’s independence movement to campaign for an independent England. Over the years, I have debated with many of them and fundamentally their argument is based on the idea of harnessing feelings of English national identity to bring about progressive change[8]. This means that people in East Leeds and all across Yorkshire and the North are assumed to be English and told that we should feel proud of being English. In fact, this seems to be the only argument used in favour of an English Parliament, “the only nation in the UK without a parliament”[9]. But that argument would only work if it was universally held to be true. If it’s not, other arguments would need to be deployed. The truth is that identity is contested in Yorkshire and the North.

When social media is full of clickbait articles asking ‘Where is the North?’, it always seems most clearly defined to me as the area governed as England where at least some of the people that live there doubt that it is part of England at all (and know that it is not part of Cornwall). To me, the North begins where at least a significant minority of people born and/or raised in a town don’t think of themselves as ‘English’, even if others think of it as the very heart of England. When Arianna Giovannini hosted a Northern identity workshop at the People’s Powerhouse convention in 2019[10], she discovered, “little sense of attachment to Englishness. It is perceived as an exclusive/excluding identity that does not cater for ‘Northernness’”. Following that event, Oli Bentley put his own ‘These Northern Types’ project in the context of “all identities, including Northern, being myths that we create”[11]. A theme also investigated by John Baxendale in 2011 when he described how “The North has even forgotten it was defeated”[12].

Nevertheless it is also important to recognise that for many people in Yorkshire, their primary sense of identity is not Northern or English, but Yorkshire. English parliament supporters often point to the 2011 census and use it to suggest increasing numbers of people in Yorkshire feel primarily English. In reality however, the census doesn’t give people in Yorkshire a fair opportunity to identify with identities other than English or British. When the option to identify as Yorkshire is given, as described by Pete Woodcock[13], the overwhelming majority identified as Yorkshire with only a smaller proportion identifying as English as well. The most common identity was ‘more Yorkshire than English’ and around 15% of residents surveyed rejected the idea of English identity completely.

In the BBC’s award winning Rugby Codebreakers documentary about black Welshmen who moved north to get a fair chance to realise their rugby potential, Carolyn Hitt described how people in Wales saw rugby league (RL) as an ‘English’ game[14]. But many who see themselves as proudly English (that is to say they want their sport to proudly and clearly reflect their sense of English identity) disown rugby league as being ‘just a Northern game’. In further interviews following the documentary, Carolyn also described how the Wales rugby union (RU) team was a rare source of pride during 1980’s industrial decline. The same decline happened here in a similar industrial landscape but the idea of ‘England’ meant we could never had that same source of pride. Until the emergence of the Yorkshire international football team, Great Britain Rugby League was the closest people in Yorkshire and the North got to an international sporting team that didn’t force them to identify as English.

In sports historian Tony Collins’ podcast interview with Sky Sports presenter Brian Carney about RL and GAA (Gaelic games, including gaelic football, hurling and camogie), both referred to how the sports’ development and profile had been affected by the idea of what is and what isn’t a nation[15]. Fundamentally the idea of England has worked against the best interests of RL (and the North) more generally. The counterintuitive appeal of RU in Wales is because Wales exists. By playing RU, Wales could beat England at its own game but operate free from RFU interference. In fact, throughout his career, Carney has shown a good awareness of the arbitrary nature of borders and the need to ensure that they don’t lead to identities being forced on people. Rugby League in particular has a (perhaps accidentally) progressive approach to identity and the prospects for international teams representing Yorkshire and the North were discussed on page 24 of Same Skies’ report on the future of rugby league in West Yorkshire[16].

I love where I live, I am proud of what we have achieved together over thousands of years of migration, settlement and its legacy. To me it seems entirely legitimate in self- determination for any individual or group of individuals to express an identity, whether that be European, British, English, Northerner, Yorkshire, Loiner or something else. For most people the evidence seems to suggest it is a combination with different emphases for each individual. Equally there are many who argue that just as an English parliament would do nothing for the North by simply keeping power in the hands of those who have already let us down, I agree with those frustrated that non-South Eastern identities and experiences are not acknowledged but simply subsumed into ‘Englishness’, especially by those in power. Social media is full of English parliament campaigners telling Yorkshire parliament campaigners that they must feel English and so accept an English Parliament whilst others tell us that we must feel Yorkshire and accept a parliament based on historic boundaries. I respect those views and personally am very sympathetic to a Yorkshire Parliament but all these man-made boundaries have no more or less legitimacy for many people than a West Yorkshire/Elmet or Northern assembly or identity. Each border is a record from a point in time when that border suited the most powerful people at that moment. Over time, that border then became something to which people felt an attachment. Each individual has a right to determine their own identity and not be told they should feel something and that ‘something’ means only certain boundaries are legitimate. If the best option for devolution is Yorkshire, the argument must also be made on merits beyond identity and respectful links must be built with those who respect Yorkshire identity but see it as no more relevant than English, Northern, Elmet, Loiner or whatever else. We must create a big, welcoming space within devolved democracies for those who feel various identities.

And so a question beyond an identity must be answered, a basic question – What could an English Parliament do that wouldn’t be better done at region, island or continental level? Or at least, that was the question. This basic question itself however may change in the light of  Brexit and Scottish Independence. So, what then? Could a post-UK settlement leave English Parliament enthusiasts dictating to us here? Will we in East Leeds and beyond wait for a newly created English Parliament to bestow gifts upon us? Could we be stuck with an English Parliament trying to justify itself by making an impact?

Although many here see ‘England’ as an appropriate scale for a football league or international sporting team, recent experiences with regard to Covid and financial support during lockdowns are yet more proof that the idea of England as an administrative or political space always works against the best interests of Yorkshire and the North. I have always seen Regional Democracy as radical subsidiarity in a Britain/EU context. But given Brexit and likely Scottish independence, I can see a danger that Yorkshire and the North will be trapped under an ‘England’ Parliament that is trying to justify its existence and unlikely to give power away.

Do we in the area governed as England’s North need to get organised and come up with a better alternative? Can we pre-empt the change? If we do it from the bottom up, where might we end up? Not Northern England or the North of England, but instead ‘The place that’s to the north of England’. Sometimes it gets called The North (although this often frustrates people living in The North of Scotland, of Ireland and of Wales). I usually describe it as Yorkshire and the North (recognising Yorkshire distinctiveness even within the North and avoiding the claim that it has to be the North of somewhere and that somewhere is England). In recent times however, the emergence of the Northern Independence Party (NIP) has led to an older name coming into use – Northumbria.

Northumbria is definitely a better name than anything that empowers people to claim that even the North of England has to ultimately accept the authority of England’s capital. I also like that NIP are referring to history as evidence of borders changing, interrogating borders of the past opens up questions of England’s usefulness, but also, in asking the North Midlands (where I spent the first 18 years of my life) if it wants to be included, the party’s leader Paul Proudfoot has set a tone that sees this as about the future – whatever the history, what do we want in future? What will a useful idea of Northumbria be in future? To me, discussions of all histories and their impact today help question assumptions (including people themselves motivated by any one of those specific histories). They all matter as much as each other, in that none of them matter if we are talking about what’s useful in future.

Party politics and self-determination in Yorkshire and the North

The NIP exploded on social media in October 2020 and benefited from a burst of initial curiosity from the fringes of London Hegemony media with a tone often doubting and comical that reminded me of mainstream media covering the Yorkshire Party’s emergence in 2015. YP initially struggled to get media attention much beyond RT and in both cases, a lot of the engagement on Twitter has been with the kind of social media profiles associated with Russian bot factories. Neither discredits either party but it does give a hint at the balance such parties have to strike in trying to build awareness of their challenge to the UK constitution against a media context dominated by London Hegemony, whilst also being aware of Russian geopolitical strategy to destabilise the UK and EU for their own reasons. Although the SNP and Plaid Cymru have also faced similar issues, in both cases the media infrastructure for and from those nations is much more substantial than in Yorkshire and the North.

Perhaps understandably given how many people in Yorkshire and the North bemoan the lack of opportunities in the place where they grew up, the Yorkshire and Northern Independence Parties were both founded by people who didn’t live in those places at the time – YP’s Richard Carter in Norway and NIP’s Philip Proudfoot in London. Proudfoot even benefited from being in the same place during Covid restrictions as the ITV (and most ‘national’) news teams to be able to film a socially distanced interview outside Westminster. Nevertheless, both YP & NIP have an inclusive sense of Yorkshire and the North based on residence not ethnicity. This is consistent with the experience of generations of newcomers who have viewed the idea of England as less inclusive than Yorkshire identity[17]. Given this, it was no surprise that YP’s subsequent leaders Stewart Arnold, Chris Whitwood and Bob Buxton live in Yorkshire. Proudfoot has now moved back to Durham where he grew up and has announced plans for the election of a future leader.

There are significant contrasts between the parties as well. The longer established YP has stood in all elections since formation and had local councillors elected but its policy platform has been primarily limited to the ambition for a Yorkshire Parliament. Just like NIP, it has said that border areas should have referenda to choose whether to be part of devolved Yorkshire but this is based on the aim of including parts of historic Yorkshire that have not been part of administrative Yorkshire since local government reorganisation in 1974. Beyond that however, its vision is to include anybody of any political opinion within Yorkshire who supports their devolution ambitions through electoral politics. The only caveat to that has been to promote an inclusive sense of Yorkshire, which led partially to the decision to draw up the distinctive policy of supporting the UK’s membership of EFTA (including reciprocal free movement) following the 2019 European Parliament elections.

By contrast, NIP do not just promote constitutional change as part of their identity, but also identify as a democratic socialist party. At this early stage, they haven’t had chance to stand in elections or to develop broader policies but it seems very clear that they aim to be a progressive left party. In fact, one of the lines used by supporters of an English Parliament within the Labour Party to challenge them has been to suggest NIP are “disillusioned Corbynites who plucked Northumbria out of the history books two weeks ago”. Given this, it may be that it is not only constitutional issues that lead NIP to stand in elections against the Yorkshire Party, such as the upcoming West Yorkshire metro mayor election, and their counterparts in the North East Party. In the North West though, there may not be a similar contest as the Northern Party that stood in 5 Lancashire seats during the 2015 election and was founded by the nephew of the North East Party’s leader was dissolved a year later. The fact that a party only active in Lancashire identified as the Northern Party is also an indication of different ideas of regionalism in Yorkshire and the North.

Given our electoral system, I can understand the fear of many in Yorkshire and the North that the party who has the best chance of controlling the area governed as England for the foreseeable future is the same group of people who have expressed their concern at the impact of previous devolution[18]. But nevertheless, it is still important to consider whether independence is the best option for now, or ever. And whether party politics is the best way to achieve self-determination for Yorkshire and the North in whatever form.

Civil society, regional democracy and independence

Alongside NIP, there is a non-partisan group campaigning for Northumbrian independence (appealing to non-party members and to existing activists in London based parties[19]) and in doing so, they build on the basis of a number of other groups in Yorkshire and the North that have long campaigned for self-determination through regionalism. As well as Same Skies in West Yorkshire and People’s Powerhouse across the North[20], this includes the Hannah Mitchell Foundation who co-organised the Northern Citizens Convention in Huddersfield in 2015 and now lead the Campaign for Northern Democracy which ‘lobbies for democratically-elected regional governance within the North of England’. Like NIP, HMF is primarily made up of people with experience in the Labour Party and since foundation in 2011 have been co-ordinated by leading thinker on self-determination in the North, Paul Salveson[21].

Despite this, whether the aim of self-determination is Regional Democracy or independence, our civil society capacity in Yorkshire and the North is way below where even Scotland started on its journey towards devolution in 1979. For example, there is very little regional print media rooted in Yorkshire and the North, for the region and about the region. Big Issue North is the closest thing we have to a Northern wide newspaper of thoughtful & socially aware journalism. From an economic perspective, long-time advocate for devolution, Tom Forth told The Independent, “ Unless there was a credible plan for super-rapid economic growth, significant tax rises, and instantly deep cuts, a newly independent north would find it almost impossible to borrow money. It would be facing bankruptcy on day one.”[22]. This suggests that independence for Northumbria might only be a possible end goal after it has secured its fair share of resources, perhaps including historical reparations from the London Hegemony. This would perhaps be the natural conclusion from Jon Trickett’s description of how London government ‘treats us like the last colonial outpost of British Empire’[23].

To do that, it would need strong political leadership within England/UK before independence. My general preference for regional democracy has always been a Yorkshire assembly[24] elected by PR with similar powers to Holyrood (what former Yorkshire Party leader Richard Carter called ‘First Rate Devolution’). But through Same Skies, I have been engaging positively with the election of the first West Yorkshire metro mayor given Brexit concentrated even more power in Westminster for the foreseeable future and this may be our only realistic option to build capacity[25], what Bob Melling described as ‘taking the opportunity’[26].

Nevertheless, for campaigners with a specific view of what devolution should look like, the fact that London remains in control of what and how much power and resources are bestowed means engagement or detachment often feels like a game of strategy. For example, a West Yorkshire metro mayor might make a Yorkshire Assembly less likely. There is an emerging idea of a Yorkshire leaders board promoted by the One Yorkshire coalition that supported a metro mayor for the whole of Yorkshire but this would be indirectly democratic in that it would be made up of mayors elected from each sub-region rather than directly elected to a Yorkshire wide role[27]. That though might mean that a West Yorkshire metro mayor makes an Assembly at a Northern scale more likely. But even so, would a Northern Assembly still be likely if the joint action by Northern metro mayors over financial support during Covid lockdowns[28] leads to a Northern co-operative of metro mayors pooling power and resources from the bottom up rather than as a top down gift from London (as suggested by Bob Melling[29].

For the same reasons, it would also be important to ask whether a newly formed independent Northumbrian parliament would be any more likely to give power away quickly than an English one would? I think there are reasons to think it is more likely but it is still a risk. Long time activist for self-determination in Scotland, Pat Kane, wondered aloud if “the Free North itself be federal and fractal enough – or is this the “directive state” of Corbyn Labour come back in through a side door?”[30]. Nevertheless the former leader of the Yorkshire Party, Stewart Arnold, has suggested a Yorkshire assembly within an independent Northumbria could still be possible[31] and Newcastle upon Tyne based cultural democracy activist Stephen Pritchard has also expressed the hope that Northumbria “could become a confederated state without capital or capitals but with shared decision-making in & across regions.”[32]

What future for self-determination?

Ultimately however, as Tom Barrett has identified[33], there are lots of different ways in which lines have been drawn across this island for administrative and other purposes. As Alex Niven identified in ‘New Model Island’[34], questioning the idea of England is an opportunity to build something better.

For most in the London Hegemony, ‘England’ is the default position. If people in Yorkshire and/or Northumbria don’t feel that to be true then they have to challenge incorrect assumptions about their identity. I can see people in East Leeds going four ways in future: Identity means some support an Independent England or an Independent Northumbria (or Yorkshire). Others might have supported England at sport in the past but will weigh up whether an independent Northumbria/Yorkshire is better for future governance and decide accordingly. I can see that an isolated England may well still be most likely post-Brexit and the breakup of the United Kingdom. If that is the case, Yorkshire and the North will have no choice but to challenge a newly established English Parliament to give up a lot of its newly claimed power and resource. A federal England might follow but it won’t happen quickly enough to address the impact of the London Hegemony. If the aim though is meaningful democracy at local and regional levels, why don’t we start there? Focus on devolving power and resources immediately and so empowering regions to decide if they want to pool any powers at a Yorkshire, Northumbria or England level or not? If regions think it best to pool resources/powers at a Yorkshire, Northumbria or England level, they will.

Being and feeling excluded is what has long happened to people here in Yorkshire and the North. Despite accusations from opponents, self-determination for areas currently governed by England is not about excluding others, it’s about dealing with being excluded. But in doing so, it is important to acknowledge that the vast majority of voices from Yorkshire and the North heard on these issues (and referenced in this article) are white men, just like me. Whatever our future – regional democracy, independence or both – it is surely past time that we moved out of the way and listened more to neighbours like Leila Taleb[35] and Tiffany Holloman[36].

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6T0Yd7l0nNc

[2] https://theculturevulture.co.uk/conversations/speakerscorner/devo-yorks/

[3] https://www.redpepper.org.uk/where-im-calling-from/

[4] https://sameskiesthinktank.com/article-50-a-personal-view-on-yorkshire-the-uk-and-the-eu/

[5] https://sameskiesthinktank.com/same-skies-think-tank-open-space-manningham-bradford-2015/

[6] https://sameskiesthinktank.com/same-skies-think-tank-book-what-kind-region-want-to-live-in/

[7] https://www.thestateofthearts.co.uk/features/can-we-amp-up-west-yorkshire/

[8] https://twitter.com/ianeastleeds/status/1113842583019696128?s=21

[9] https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2018/01/18/in-the-post-brexit-world-england-deserves-its-own-parliament/

[10] https://twitter.com/ariannagi/status/1196814693043703808?s=21

[11] https://twitter.com/splituk/status/1196834164584124418?s=21

[12] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/england-scotland-and-north-view-from-flyover-country/

[13] https://theconversation.com/cornwall-and-yorkshire-show-regional-identities-run-deep-in-england-too-41322

[14] https://www.walesonline.co.uk/sport/rugby/rugby-news/the-rugby-codebreakers-billy-boston-14391534

[15] https://tony-collins.squarespace.com/rugbyreloaded/2020/10/11/rugby-reloaded-135-sky-sports-brian-carney-on-gaelic-football-and-rugby-league

[16] https://sameskiesthinktank.com/rugby-league-west-yorkshire-future-ian-martin/

[17] https://www.thealternative.org.uk/dailyalternative/2019/1/9/a-documentary-that-sums-up-the-hope-of-yorkshire-and-the-linked-sense-of-belonging-as-unquestionably-diverse?rq=Yorkshire

[18] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/nov/17/a-disaster-boris-johnson-adds-devolution-problems

[19] https://twitter.com/georgeaylett/status/1328991886930010112?s=21

[20] https://peoplespowerhouse.org.uk/blogs/blog/devolution/regional-democracy

[21] http://www.paulsalveson.org.uk/2020/10/01/the-case-for-progressive-regionalism/

[22] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/independent-north-england-devolution-yorkshire-manchester-north-east-b1481784.html

[23] https://twitter.com/jon_trickett/status/900110699799736326

[24] https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/opinion/columnists/ian-martin-five-million-reasons-we-need-assembly-1777895

[25] https://www.thealternative.org.uk/dailyalternative/2019/3/9/yorkshire-slow-emergence-regional-democracy

[26] https://twitter.com/mellingbob/status/1329026061464702976?s=21

[27] https://www.yorkshirepost.co.uk/news/opinion/columnists/why-yorkshire-leaders-must-present-united-front-yorkshire-post-says-2928586

[28] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/10/north-of-england-mayors-reject-support-package-for-local-covid-lockdowns

[29] https://twitter.com/MellingBob/status/1315292541411975168?s=20

[30] https://www.thealternative.org.uk/dailyalternative/2020/11/14/free-north-party?rq=Yorkshire

[31] https://twitter.com/yorkshireguidon/status/1328394450876440577?s=21

[32] https://twitter.com/etiennelefleur/status/1328408152233160716?s=21

[33] https://broadhectares.wordpress.com/2020/11/10/20-maps-for-governing-yorkshire-and-beyond/

[34] https://thequietus.com/articles/27571-alex-niven-new-model-island-radical-culture-beyond-idea-of-england-interview

[35] https://wesharethesameskiesblog.wordpress.com/2016/01/26/if-we-are-truly-devolving-power-to-local-people-where-are-the-people/

[36] https://sameskiesthinktank.com/devolution-as-a-pressure-relief-valve-for-extremist-politics/