Pablo John makes the case for regional 'First Ministers'.
It’s official, May’s local elections are going ahead, come hell or high water. One of the positions up for grabs is the new West Yorkshire Metro Mayor. Now both West and South Yorkshire will have Mayors and representation, but East and North Yorkshire will not.
Mayors will not solve the English regional headache, because they don’t represent the people most distant from the political centre: rural and small-town Britain. This isn’t to say urban areas don’t have problems, but if the goal of Metro Mayors is to give representation to left-behind areas, swinging towards the populist right (every English region outside of London voted to leave the EU), it won’t work.
The West Yorkshire Metro Mayor result is likely to be dominated by the votes of people in Bradford and Leeds, just as the South Yorkshire result was dominated by Sheffield voters. This isn’t a bad thing, empty land doesn’t vote and city dwellers deserve their voice, but it is fundamentally unbalanced. Either you grow the metro area so large it covers half the region in order to balance out the city vote (like in the West Midlands or West England) or you further empower urban areas whilst leaving rural parts behind. Why do South and West Yorkshire qualify but North Yorkshire doesn’t? Or even West Sussex for that matter? Where do you draw the line? Who gets devolution and who doesn’t seems completely arbitrary.
And by their very nature, a Mayor will not have the same national voice and influence as a First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon, Arlene Foster and Mark Drakeford got regular contact with Whitehall Ministers at the start of the pandemic, Andy Burnham did not, despite running an area with 1.5 times the population of Northern Ireland. I very much doubt First Minister Andy Burnham would have been plunged into tier 3 without being told beforehand, but because he is a Mayor, there was nothing he could do. Dan Jarvis, the Mayor of South Yorkshire, decided to remain an MP alongside being a Mayor so his voice could be heard. What's the point of having a local Mayor if they need to be in Westminster to get things done?
The solution is regional Parliaments with regional First Ministers - not just one person accountable to themselves, but Cabinets, Parliaments and Committees, real Government, real scrutiny, real democracy. Regional Parliaments would give the countryside and cities alike a balanced voice, and they would give true representation; every region of our country would have a leader and a voice that could not be ignored or overruled.
This might sound radical but the infrastructure is already in place, in Yorkshire. A coherent plan for a “One Yorkshire'' devolution deal for a Yorkshire Combined Authority, supported by 18 of Yorkshire's 20 local authorities was presented to the central Government, and this deal was rejected. Despite this, One Yorkshire is still supported by South Yorkshire Mayor Dan Jarvis and West Yorkshire frontrunner Tracy Brabin.
Britain now operates under a patchwork, where some regions have a lot of power, some have a little, and some have none at all. We were able to see how this has had dire consequences in Britain’s pandemic response, leading to vast inequalities in outcomes such as vaccination rates.
While regional leaders like Andy Burnham, Dan Jarvis and Tracy Brabin are doing excellent work, after this pandemic we have a chance to ensure that England’s regions have money, power and a voice, with regional First Ministers accountable to the public and to elected Parliaments, who can not only lead their region, but act as a voice on the national stage. Sorry Boris, but a Mayor just doesn’t cut it.
Pablo John is Co-Chair of Leeds Labour Students.