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More jobs for the boys

Last November, John Prescott's impressively titled department – “Office of the Deputy Prime Minister” – launched its campaign for the creation of regional assemblies in England, to complement the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies. This is, in part, an attempt at answering Tam Dalyell's finickety 'West Lothian Question' – how Scottish MP's can go on voting on English matters while English MP's may not vote on Scottish matters, due to their being devolved to the other assembly. This has been a question of particular concern for Labour, since many of their MP's are from Scottish constituencies, especially as Scotland have more MP's per voter than England.

The aim is to give the voters in regions a say, via a referendum, in whether they want an elected assembly or not. Given the pitiful turn-outs for the Welsh and Scottish devolution referendums, we can safely expect the same again – although the Act enabling these referendums does specify they should only be held if a sufficient degree of interest is expressed in those regions for such bodies. The campaigns are set to be supported by the very local government careerists who are already councillors and wanting to be better paid for their public service. The Great and the Good of the North East have already established an “assembly” (www.northeastassembly.gov.uk), as they have in other prospective regions for devolution.

The regions will coincide with the already devolved layers of government and region bureaucracies existing within several departments. What they will mean, is handing over political control over those regional bodies to local politicians. We have noted in these columns before how democratic competition is used to control public administration. In this case, it is giving Labourites a shot of competing with the entrenched civil service bureaucrats whom they consider to be unsympathetic to their policies.

Clearly, jobs for the boys and girls cannot be far behind the minds of the politicians plotting this latest reform. So far, New Labour has succeeded in introducing professional councillor's into local authorities, via the elected mayor's and cabinets, and they look set to create more full-time salaried posts in 25-35 seat assemblies. Such jobs would appeal to the New Labour state managerial constituency, keeping those who live by expropriating tax-surplus value on side for the Labour project. It would also provide Labour with a means of retaining their loyalty during periods when out of Westminster power, by providing regional strongholds to organise around.

This has, of course, been seen before, during the last Tory reign, Labour's metropolitan councils clashed with the Tory government, trying to maintain their spending and social priorities as against the government. This, though, may not be so easy for the regional assemblies, as, although they will be able to raise a tax “precept” from council tax, they will be dependent upon central state funding. They will be specifically disbarred from altering business rates. Even still, the sum quoted, say, for the North East Assembly's budget, £350 million is derisory compared to even the smallest budget of already existing local authorities.

Although these assemblies will be allowed to borrow against their current revenue, this power will remain circumscribed by central government in order to “protect people in the region from excessive borrowing which could have long-term implications for council tax”. This is part of the effort to restrain over-all state borrowing. The reality of these assemblies, then, will be as a proxy for central government decisions. Just as with the recent row of local government spending, with Councils and Central Government blaming each other for council tax rises and cuts, so will regional assemblies be drawn into the same game.

Lucrative contracts
Given that the Assemblies will need “capitals” – places to build offices and impressive chambers, some of their money could well end up being spend on new building projects in the lucky cities. That would mean various towns would compete for the joy of being the “Capital of the South West” or wherever, in order for the lucrative contracts that would inevitably follow. That administrative and lobbyist jobs would follow soon would also have to be taken into account. This scheme is, then, part of the remnants of British State Capitalism, using government monies to make work and business.

Much of the changes, though, will be for show. As the White Paper acknowledges, there is a strong tradition of local government already in existence, via borough and county councils, much of the system for which was worked out under the Wilson government in the 60's. The proposals include abolishing two-tier county councils as part of a move to regional identities, which will deprive the Tories of their rural seats by which they have always had a significant presence on such bodies, especially in Northumberland and County Durham. They will be, though, rewarded with permanent minority status within the new assemblies.

This will be achieved through the introduction of proportional representation, with the British modification of the additional member system being applied. In the German variant, the vote for a candidate is also a vote for their party, which then can add members from a list up to their proportional vote across the list area. The British version is Scotland and Wales gives voters two separate votes, one for a candidate, and another for a party. This has led, in Scotland, to the so-called Scottish Socialist Party advocating a Labour vote for the directly elected component, and a vote for themselves on this list. This has helped the SSP to increase its size in the Scottish Parliament to six seats. The Tories have remained in the Parliament almost solely through their list presence.

Their preference for PR is in part a recognition of the relative powerlessness of these assemblies. In the ODPM's report, they are careful to note that:

“The Governments preference for some form of PR for regional assembly elections does not mean that PR is necessarily the right model for parliamentary or local government elections, both of which currently use first-past-the-post” (p. 59).

That is, introduction of PR in assemblies may not mean it will be introduced to bodies where the current occupants enjoy the discrepancies of the First-Past-the-Post system.

At least one other reason for these changes exists, which is the European Union's preference for dealing with regions, rather than with centralised states. This in part the EU's attempt to circumvent hostile governments hidebound in nationalist rhetoric in favour of pragmatic local politicians only too glad for the cash. The 1991 Maastricht Treaty set up the 'Committee of the Regions' to enable the EU to co-ordinate its activities better at a local basis, and also engage more directly with the voters in the EU.

As far as socialists are concerned, we are always grateful for any opportunity to contest control of the apparatus of government, even if that opportunity is handed out by the government as a careerist scam intended for its supporters. We have no preferences over the electoral systems, though we would use whatever access they gave us to these assemblies to provide a platform to shout about the interests of the working class.

The clearest message, though, from the government's plans, is that power remains firmly at the centre, and that the elected bodies are only there to provide information flow in order to allocate resources effectively. The golden rule applies in politics – them as have the gold rule. So long as the purse strings are retained centrally, there is no possibility of the policies of these assemblies being anything other than the pale shadows of central government's. Socialists look forward, instead, to having, within a socialist society, genuine, democratic freedom of association, where communities govern themselves through their own efforts; forming groupings where they need, rather than being stifled by sham-bureaucratic democracy engineered from above.