James Alexander: Why devolution, and not division, is the future for a federal United Kingdon

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THE United Kingdom has never been a more divided country; between North and South, between the devolved nations and England and between the extremely wealthy and the rest of us. The constituency results of the General Election are self-perpetuating manifestation of this division our country faces. This division will continue until our national politicians show leadership, inspire people and unite us around the common good.

The overall election result was not the result the majority expected, but was the result the majority voted for. Undecided voters did not want to rock the boat of gradual economic recovery into the stormy seas of the unknown. My party, Labour, must accept this premise and understand that what we offered the British public was not what people wanted.

And if the plan doesn’t work, you change the plan but never the goal. We must listen to the British people and reflect their ambitions, their dreams, their aspirations and, crucially, their frustrations. I am naturally disappointed we did not receive the trust of the British people and I am equally as disappointed my former colleagues in York, where I was council leader, could not recreate what we collectively achieved in the 2011 local election results. But the result in hindsight is understandable.

In an era of economic reconstruction following the financial crash, people become less tolerant of others. They see money spent on public services they do not use as waste and become fearful of a changing economic outlook for their family or community’s way of life. People feel powerless and fearful.

Sometimes this fear is expressed in terms of immigration, sometimes over a perceived centralisation of Europe and at other times over fiscal responsibility. This fear was ruthlessly exploited by Tory election guru Lynton Crosby. He is famed for his ability to exploit “wedge politics”. This is the process of identifying your political opponent’s voters and driving a wedge amongst its supporters – in essence divide and conquer.

Before Christmas, the Conservatives had incredible message discipline, repeating the phrase “long-term economic plan” ad infinitum. However, in January, there was a panic. The Conservatives believed they could no longer win a majority and therefore would need to start a process of exposing and delegitimising alternative post-election outcomes.

The Conservatives switched campaign horses and began talking up the SNP. This exacerbated fear amongst the English who voted for the status quo and brought out bubbling anger amongst the Scots, who voted to see the back of Labour. The Conservatives have been playing fast and loose with the Union in the same way they did in Northern Ireland in 2010 with an electoral pact with the Ulster Unionist Party. And it worked.

The Conservatives defied political gravity and increased their vote by 0.8 per cent. Yet, crucially, they gained 24 seats – a 3.7 per cent increase on 2010. This secured their first majority election win in 23 years. But they secured the votes of less than a quarter of the United Kingdom population eligible to vote – less than the 40 per cent support the Conservatives say should be required to ensure a strike is legitimate. The election result means we now live in a more politically, economically and culturally divided nation than ever before and we have a government that is prepared to exacerbate and exploit these divisions.

Scotland returned 59 MPs at the election and Yorkshire and the Humber returned 52. But whose voice in Parliament will be stronger? Scotland will gain more powers, leaving the north of England in particular behind. Our region has a population equivalent to Scotland and economy double that of Wales, yet the power of neither. Projects like HS2 high-speed rail and city devolution deals will only go so far in addressing the division and imbalance in our economy faced by the country. We need genuine, no-strings-attached devolution.

Why can’t the people of Yorkshire and the Humber decide to lower business rates to become more competitive, set taxes or decide large transport schemes? Are the people of Yorkshire and the Humber not as smart as the Scottish or Welsh? Not as trustworthy?

Devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London were achievements of the previous Labour Government but they left a democratic deficit in England. For the United Kingdom to succeed and working people to get on, all regions and nations of the United Kingdom must work for working people and there must be a level playing field. England is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, sometimes described as the last bastion of the Empire ruled from London. The Conservatives have given some limited devolution to a handful of big cities but we need devolution with real and credible powers to all parts of England, including the shires.

Greg Clark has been appointed the new Communities and Local Government Secretary. He is smart, believes passionately in devolution and he is honourable. But at the launch of the 2011 Centre for Cities report at the Greater London Authority he explained to us that economic growth emanating from the 10 largest cities would drive the national economy and that these cities needed devolution – and the advent of city-mayors – so that they could compete with the Bürgermeisters of Germany. However standing behind every Bürgermeister is a regional government with a regional investment bank in a federal system. Without genuine regional devolution, English directly-elected mayors can never compete with the Bürgermeisters and English cities cannot compete with their European counterparts either.

The time has come for Yorkshire and Humber devolution in a federal United Kingdom and I will play my part in making this happen.

• James Alexander stood down as Leader of City of York Council in December. He is writing in a personal capacity.