James Reed: No, you can’t take the politics out of Yorkshire devolution

Should any elected mayors for Yorkshire be political or not?

Should any elected mayors for Yorkshire be political or not?

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FOR former US president Ronald Reagan, the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the Government and I’m here to help”.

The three words that worry me most in politics are “I’m not political”. Particularly when uttered by somebody running for public office.

Judging by recent conversations I have had about Yorkshire’s tortuous devolution process, my concerns are not universally shared.

The reasons for the stalled devolution process in Yorkshire are hugely complex but undoubtedly party politics plays a significant role.

The Government insists if Yorkshire, or bits of it, want more control over their own affairs they must create new elected mayors to ensure the public has someone to hold accountable for how these powers are used

Creating new mayors means drawing lines on maps to decide the areas they will responsible for, and political parties calculating what the outcome is likely to mean for themselves.

There are honourable individuals on all sides willing to support solutions that might deliver political power to their opponents, but there are others who refuse to contemplate anything of the sort.

So one of the approaches being taken currently is to try and find a structure where the role of elected mayor is best suited to an apolitical figure, a figurehead for their area if you will, while the real decision-making is done at a different level and all sides are satisfied.

I find this prospect troubling in many respects.

As a starting point, I simply don’t believe anyone is apolitical.

We all have values that determine the choices we 
make. If somebody is to seek public office and oversee the spending of taxpayers’ money, then voters deserve to know 
the priorities they will bring 
to the role.

Governing at any level is a subjective business. If there were just ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers, we could let a computer get on with the job and I could find another way to make a living.

Public office is frequently about the holder making difficult choices informed by their political hinterland.

It is also an analysis which panders to the idea that politics is inherently bad, that those who pursue office invariably do so for their own ends and that the miracle cure to all ills is to hand power to those who profess not to be political animals. We might call this the Donald Trump thesis.

And at a more pragmatic level, if the position of Yorkshire mayor, or mayors, is to be so powerless that the politics of the incumbents can be considered unimportant, then wouldn’t the region’s taxpayers be entitled to wonder why on earth they were paying for them and their offices?

This region already has a very successful ambassador for “brand Yorkshire”. We don’t need another one.

A variation on this theme is the idea that Yorkshire’s future mayors should come from a business background, rather than a recognised local or national politician.

I have huge admiration for Yorkshire’s business community and this region desperately 
needs much stronger levels of private sector growth to wean itself off decades of dependence on the state and tax revenues generated in other parts of the country. And I am sure there are many business people who could excel as mayors.

But we should not kid ourselves that business people do not have political views. I’ve met people in business with views from across the political spectrum who would have 
very different ideas of how to tackle the problems Yorkshire faces.

It is never assumed that someone who has excelled in politics would automatically thrive in business. So why do we assume someone who has prospered in the private sector would do well in elected office? Sir Philip Green for Yorkshire mayor anyone? No, I didn’t think so.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that these new roles should be the preserve of the major parties or familiar names from Westminster or Yorkshire’s town halls. Smaller parties, independent candidates and those without a history in elected politics should play their part.

After more than a decade of writing about underinvestment in transport, Yorkshire’s deficit on educational standards 
and skills, the cost of rural services, its entrepreneurship challenge and many many other issues, I am more convinced than ever that the answers lie in this region having a much bigger say in how taxes are raised and where they are spent and taking responsibility for the outcome rather than engaging in an endless blame game with London.

If, as it seems determined to, the Government insists that elected mayors are the price for Yorkshire devolution, then we should make them jobs worth doing, with real powers to tackle the longstanding obstacles to the region achieving its potential and carried out by people equipped for the job.

And when candidates put themselves forward for these powerful posts – if the devolution deadlock can ever be broken – I will want to know what their politics are. And you should too.

James Reed is political editor of The Yorkshire Post.

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