How New Labour lost its nerve

Proposed regional assemblies would be too weak to cure the quango culture, argues Nick Cohen Proposed regional assemblies are a missed chance to cure the quango culture, argues Nick Cohen

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A FORMULAIC debate on the monarchy was briefly enlivened two years ago by an explosion of anger against British timidity from the playwright David Hare.

"We know in our hearts that the monarchy is an historic absurdity," he said. "But, because we lack the courage to abolish it, as we lack the courage for any radical undertaking, we express our anger at our own bad faith by torturing the individuals concerned."

Last week, Labour contemplated the radical undertaking of democratising the English regions and, in a parallel to Hare's observation on the monarchy, its courage failed. The failure was one of nerve rather than imagination. Tony Blair and Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, came up with their solution to the "English problem". It was typically clever, and typically over-cautious.

The outlines of the difficulty Labour faces are well known. Successful modern European countries - Germany, France and Spain - all have strong regional government. Britain has largely impotent local government at city and district level and no regional assemblies at all.

Scots want their own parliament and Labour, fearing they will break away from Britain (or, worse, stop voting Labour) if their demands are not met, will give them one. Wales, too, seems to want devolution and will get it. In England, strong regional feeling may exist in the North, but few seem to care about regional government in the South outside London. If large parts of England reject the idea of regional government, how can Labour justify letting Scots MPs at Westminster vote on English affairs when English MPs have no say in the business of a Scottish parliament? (This is the West Lothian question which can push constitutional experts to the verge of breakdown).

The truculent answer to Home Counties indifference would be that after 16 years of policies designed to help the Conservative heartlands they can put up or shut up. But it is not New Labour's style to be hard on middle England.

Instead, Mr Straw offers a rolling programme which allows regions to go as far down the road to devolution as they like. Every part of England will be covered by regional chambers. They will not have tax-raising or legislative powers. But they will be able to go to Europe and ask for money and have some say in economic development and transport policies.

Labour makes a good case for setting up mini-parliaments. The regions are swarming with Government-appointed quangocrats, who spend pounds 6bn of public money on everything from housing to environmental improvements. But to meet the sensibilities of the South and parts of the Midlands, the assemblies which Labour wants to monitor these superquangos will not be directly elected. Existing local authorities will send representatives tothe 10 regional chambers.

Not one, except, significantly, the London chamber, can become a fully fledged elected regional assembly until local councils in its area and Parliament have approved the idea and the local electorate has signalled assent in a referendum.

Some constitutional reformers consider this a brilliant compromise. Anthony Barnett, from the ultra-democratic pressure group Charter 88, sees it as Mr Blair and Mr Straw throwing off the old authoritarianism of the "Labourist" past and bringing "new politics" to Britain. No government solutions will be "imposed from above", but organic growth will be allowed from below as an educated public works out what is best for its region.

But in the North, Mr Straw is not being hailed as a genius. Two weeks ago, Ben Lucas, a researcher in Mr Straw's office, went to a meeting of Labour councillors in Chester-le-Street, Co Durham, and was given a very rough ride. Why was the North-east, the only part of Britain where more than 50 per cent of the electorate voted Labour, being given so little, they asked? Why was it going to be easier for London to get an elected assembly than Newcastle?

Mr Lucas did his best to cope with the unexpected accusations of betrayal. But, said Tom Nairn, the radical Scottish nationalist, who was at the meeting, "he sounded like an emissary of the new Raj telling the natives that the road to self-rule might be long and for the good of the empire they should slow things down a bit."

The mutinous audience had a point. Behind all the talk of decentralisation lies the truth that Labour's regional chambers will be pitiful little bodies. Not only will they be unable to raise taxes or pass legislation, they will not even be able to take over the functions and the budgets of the regional quangos Labour claims to have found so repugnant.

Instead they will have a watchdog role. An important inroad into secrecy, no doubt, but when all is said and done members of the chambers will be glorified auditors examining rather than controlling the actions of unelected officials.

Labour sounds like a good but helpless doctor when it makes out its case. It has diagnosed what is wrong - too many quangos, not enough space for local initiatives - but can offer no effective cure.

Nor as things stand can it be sure that councils will nominate their best people to serve in the chambers. Running a big city like Newcastle is a full-time job and there are not spare days to pop along to the regional assembly. The pressure of work brought Jeremy Beecham, the present leader, to the brink of collapse last year. The most effective local politicians may well decide that it is not worth going to talking shops with no money to spend and send second-rate councillors instead. The chambers could become rest homes for municipal mediocrities.

This is unnecessarily pessimistic, says Labour. If people in the North- west or North-east want a proper, directly elected assembly they can hold a referendum and get one.

But here we come up against a fundamental problem. The English regions do not have the Scots' cohesive tradition of separate institutions. Who in north-west England, for example, is going to organise support for a "yes" vote in a referendum? The Manchester Evening News may be a fine local paper, but as a forum for regional debate it does not begin to compare with the Scotsman or Glasgow Herald. The Church of Scotland can and does press for constitutional change. There is no Church of Lancashire and no separate Lancastrian legal system.

Regional feeling consists of inchoate resentment of the privileges that "London" and the "South" are believed to enjoy. There are simply not the mechanisms to harness this for a campaign for a regional assembly.

The very weakness of modern provincial civic life is the best argument for regional government. If it can be remedied then new possibilities for social experiment and economic improvement are released.

But if New Labour is serious about reform, and some doubt that it is, it may find to its chagrin that it has to be terribly old-fashioned - positively inorganic - and impose change from above.

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