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ELECTIONS - REGIONAL RISKS

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A look ahead at elected regional government, the strength of Labour's commitment and risks posed to the government ...
A look ahead at elected regional government, the strength of Labour's commitment and risks posed to the government by a low turnout.
If the Labour Party wins a second term at the coming general election - and only a brave punter would bet against this - local government must brace itself for another bout of structural reorganisation. That is the logical conclusion from the renewed commitment of senior ministers, highlighted in LGC, to introduce elected regional assemblies in England
Labour's 1997 manifesto noted these would require a 'predominantly unitary system of local government' and that the demand for such bodies 'so varies across England that it would be wrong to impose a uniform system'. As it happens, the regions in which the demand for devolution is perceived to be loudest - the north east, the north west, and Yorkshire and the Humber - are those with the greatest proportion of the electorate already experiencing single tier local government (see above).
Even here, structural change would be required. It is not hard to see how the countryside lobby would try to exploit any perceived injustice done to the rural voters of the sparsely populated districts of Cumbria and Northumberland as they found themselves first amalgamated at county level and, worse, forming a tiny minority in a region dominated by the interests of metropolitan boroughs.
We have estimated the results of an election in these three regions on the basis of the first past the post system as used for Westminster and local elections and the additional member system adopted for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to ensure a fairer spread of representation.
In 1992 and 1997, used as examples of high and low points for Labour and the Conservatives, Labour would have won an overall majority in each region in a first past the post election. Under additional member system, Labour would have been merely the largest party in 1992 in the north west, Yorkshire and the Humber, but in all other cases would have a clear majority.
Some regional chambers, such as that in the north west, determine the balance of councillor representation according to the formula used by the Local Government Association to allocate its committee memberships. On that basis too, Labour would have a majority of seats in all three regions.
In the case of the north, the disruption to local government might be considered a price worth paying for Labour's seemingly guaranteed control of the new assemblies.
Elsewhere there is little evidence of public demand for regional government and Labour's electoral status is less secure. The south west is often seen as one area outside the Labour heartlands where regionalism may have some resonance with electors.
But it is clear that demands from Devon and Cornwall for an organisation to represent the interests of the 'far south west' will not be met and that the government office region of the south west is too large and amorphous to be seen as a satisfactory vehicle for such aspirations. Labour would probably never control a south west assembly, having finished third at every national election in the region since 1979.
Lack of public demand, the inevitably unpopular upheaval of local government and the scant likelihood of electoral gain may persuade a future Labour government to stick to its 1997 belief that devolution could be 'asymmetrical'. In practice, it would be difficult to treat regions differently for long. The UK nations have often differentiated, in the form for example of separate secretaries of state, but governance within them has had a similar pattern.
The creation of the Greater London Authority can be seen as a one-off to restore a single strategic authority. But its example contains warning signs for regionalists. Despite public and cross-party support, the turnout at both the enabling referendum and the actual elections plumbed depths not seen in London for 40 years.
Without the stimulus of the mayoral contest, by some way the most exposed local government election ever, it is likely only a quarter, rather than a third, of Londoners would have voted. Moreover, Livingstone's victory and the success of the Greens in winning three list seats is evidence of how far voters are prepared to desert the conventional parties when they take part in what are relatively cost- and consequence-free elections.
So here are some predictions about the mooted regional assemblies. Referendums to establish them will coincide with local elections and attract no higher turnout. Those who oppose the assemblies will be more motivated to vote than those who are lukewarmly in support.
At best, that will mean an assembly established by 20% of electors; at worst, as so nearly happened in Wales, the proposition would be lost. The elections will be seized on by voters as an opportunity to beat the government and to experiment with whichever fringe parties happen to strike a chord. A proportional electoral system would allow some of them to gain seats.
Faced with such a scenario, it is easy to see why some within the Cabinet may wish to try to persuade Labour's heartland activists that regional chambers would offer them all the advantages of regionalism without the grief that might come from the attempt to set up elected assemblies.
-Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher are directors of the LGC Elections Centre, University of Plymouth.
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