James Reed: Why politicians must now focus on region’s future

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IF ever there was a summer when politicians would have been hoping to get away from it all, this was the one.

Closely fought elections, both local and general, tested party machines, activists and politicians to the limit. Weeks – in the case of some marginal seats months – of pounding the streets took their toll. Winner or loser, the shared emotion in the political world was relief that it was all over.

But far from being the full stop on frantic political activity that many had hoped, May 7 proved to be more of a comma.

From the Labour leadership contest to the intense discussions over devolution to Yorkshire, the outcome of the General Election has produced one of the busiest political summers for this region in years.

I am told some Ministers have been trying to squeeze in as many meetings as they can outside the capital this summer because they fear that the slim nature of the Government’s majority will see them tied to Westminster for long periods once Parliament resumes next week.

The true consequences for the region of the decisions voters took back in May will start to become clear as the nights draw in this autumn.

Labour’s unpredictable leadership race concludes on September 12 – Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford MP Yvette Cooper still harbours hopes of being leader while Caroline Flint, the Don Valley MP, is vying to be deputy leader.

Whoever wins, there will be consequences for the political careers of many Yorkshire Labour figures. Eight MPs in the region currently sit in Labour’s Shadow Cabinet and it remains to be seen how many will be retained by the new leader or which of them would want to continue to serve under the winner.

The choice of leader will also determine the party’s attitude towards HS2. It’s intriguing – Labour started the project when last in office, lost its enthusiasm for large spells of opposition only for Ed Miliband to wholeheartedly commit to it during the election. It will have to come to a firm conclusion quickly as the future of the high speed rail project will be back on the agenda this autumn as the Government confirms the proposed route of the second phase between Birmingham and Yorkshire and the location of stations in Leeds and the south of the region.

HS2 will offer a political test at a local level as well, particularly in South Yorkshire where councils are at odds over whether the station should be at Meadowhall or in the centre of Sheffield.

But the true challenge to local co-operation will come in the decisions taken over how power and money is devolved from Whitehall to Yorkshire.

Initial proposals will be submitted this week and, as things stand, it is likely that a far from clear picture will be presented to Ministers. On visits to the region in recent days, the Chancellor, George Osborne, and James Wharton, the Minister responsible for the Northern Powerhouse, have both strained to put a positive spin on the situation, insisting it reflects a healthy debate about, and enthusiasm for, devolution.

But there is no disguising the fact that major issues still need to be resolved if the Government is to conclude devolution agreements by the end of November.

Taken at face value it is a disparate collection of issues on Yorkshire’s political agenda this autumn. But there is a common theme. All will have long term consequences that should weigh heavily on the minds of those taking the decisions.

Labour needs to choose a leader with a credible chance of winning a General Election, not just for its own sake but also to ensure the proper functioning of the democratic system for the next five years. While he is far from being neutral observer, David Miliband was right to point out that a situation where only one party can realistically win a Commons majority would be bad for the country as a whole.

The route of HS2 and the location of its stations will have a major bearing on the shape of local transport and economic development for the next 20 or 30 years. Taking the right decisions in the coming months will be the difference between HS2 being regarded as an expensive white elephant or one of the main catalysts for a genuine Northern economic revival.

Properly pursued, devolution should be another of those catalysts. Having long campaigned for greater control over its destiny, the opportunity is now being presented to Yorkshire. It may come with strings attached – particularly Mr Osborne’s insistence that any plan should include an elected mayor – but it is a significant chance to take a big step forward on the devolution agenda. For all the tensions it has created within Yorkshire, the prize on offer should be the overriding consideration.

At the start of the year, winning elections was the only thing that mattered to politicians. As the year comes to an end, the focus – now – must be firmly on the long term good of the region.

James Reed is The Yorkshire Post’s political editor.