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Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has fired the starting gun in the race for elected regional assemblies. ...
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has fired the starting gun in the race for elected regional assemblies.

The danger is no one will take much notice of the debate until days before the poll. Judging from the radio phone-ins on which I have as acted as a studio expert (yes, I know, but they were desperate), many people find the issue pretty confusing. So, through the pages of LGC, I want to issue a challenge to the ?yes? and ?no? campaigns in the three regions to be polled.

Both sides of the debate should want a good turnout in the referendum. For the ?yes? camp a low vote would rob the new institutions of the legitimacy and initial boost they need. It would also be bad news for the ?no? camp as those keen on the Assembly would be more motivated to turn out.

That is why the sides might be prevailed upon to agree a joint campaign aiming to offer as many people as possible the opportunity to hear and compare the arguments.

First there is the nation versus region debate. The ?yes? campaign emphasises the need for an institution that puts the region first. Opponents fear democratic assemblies will hasten the break up of Britain and England ? with some arguing the very idea is part of a federal European plot.

Then there is the argument between the democratic deficit and ?not more bloody politicians? positions. Supporters can point out that without an assembly, the region will continue to be run by bureaucrats, and the required abolition of a tier of local government will mean fewer politicians in total.

Opponents will claim the politicians elected to the assembly will be the same party hacks perceived to be running local government.

Finally, the economic argument will be between those who argue only a strong democratic region can address low levels of employment and wealth, versus the smaller argument that the assembly will cost money to run and will raise and waste local taxes.

The Electoral Commission is offering funds to both sides. It should go further and specify that this money must primarily be used to promote debates and materials in which both sides of the case are argued enabling citizens to form their own opinion. Public involvement specialists could be invited to host processes like citizens? juries and deliberate polls and the media encouraged to foster informed debate rather than ?yah boo? adversarialism.

Whatever the result of the regional referenda, it would be nice, just for once, to have a campaign that strengthens democracy and leaves citizens feeling they made a real choice. Matthew Taylor

Director, Institute for Public Policy Research

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