Monday, May 01, 2006

A present for Mrs Prescott

If the lady does not do the deed, with this handy kitchen accessory, let us hope that the MPs and the media combined can put up enough of a case to put the deputy prime minister out of his misery.

However, rather than his recently reported activities, there is a much more powerful reason why John Prescott should be removed from office as soon as possible. For, although he is widely regarded as a buffoon, it is largely this man who, almost single-handedly, has put the EU-related regionalisation programme on the Labour Party’s agenda, and kept it there.

The story of contemporary developments starts, in fact, in 1994, with the creation of creating ten Regional Government Offices (RGOs) by John Major – under pressure from the EU commission which virtually made their establishment conditional on the continued flow of EU funds.

But, while the Labour Party had endorsed the concept, in 1995 it backed off from its own proposals to established fully-fledged regions with their own elected assemblies. Instead, it settled for indirectly elected regional chambers, which would not compete with local government.

A similar approach was adopted in a 1996 Labour policy document entitled: "A New Voice for England's Regions", and in the 1997 manifesto. Both documents made it clear that, where there were calls for the creation of regional assemblies, popular approval would first have to be demonstrated in regional referendums.

This, however, was not acceptable to John Prescott. As an entirely private initiative, he established a "Regional Policy Commission", chaired by Bruce Millan, the former Secretary of State for Scotland and European Commissioner for Regional Policy. This recommended that each region should have a Regional Development Agency (RDA) "to promote economic development in the region with an accountable and strategic regional framework".

Such was the power of Prescott that he managed to put on the Party’s manifesto a reference to RDAs and, in the Queen's Speech of 14 May 1997, the newly elected Labour government, under Tony Blair, announced its intention to create them. The RDAs themselves, were to be Prescott's "Trojan horse" – embryonic organisations which would, in the fullness of time blossom out into full-blown regional governments.

However, the Labour Party remained lukewarm on further regionalisation, and there were indications of tension between Blair and Prescott on the issue. For instance, in July 1999, the EU commission was proposing to cut the assisted areas in the UK, from covering 34 percent of Britain's population to 29 percent. Prescott was reported as seeing that the "obvious answer" to the cuts was to press on with "the next stage of devolution" - setting up elected assemblies in the eight English regions outside London.

The same report observed that this was "far from obvious" to Blair, who was held to believe firmly that central government should only move in this direction when there was a clear demand coming from the regions.

As a further indication of where Prescott stood, the report continued:

Nevertheless, some regional politicians want to move a bit faster. Last week, the North-West Regional Assembly, which is the unelected supervisory body for the regional development agency, agreed to set up a "constitutional convention" chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, to work out a plan for an elected assembly. A similar body has already been set up in the north-east. All of this activity is being enthusiastically egged on by Mr Prescott.
By January 2001, however – with talk of election in the air – "insiders" were noting the emergence of a Prescott-Brown axis in support of regionalisation. The chancellor had promised that a second-term Labour government would strive to create a "Britain of nations and regions" as part of its bid to secure an economic renaissance outside the prosperous south of England.

Brown then suggested a new package of regional policies could be unveiled in the manifesto, or shortly after the election, hinting that this might include a commitment to directly elected regional government. "As we develop regional policies that are locally generated and managed, there has to be local and regional accountability too", he told a conference at the University of Manchester Science and Technology Institute.

Members of the pro-devolution Campaign for the English Regions had welcomed the Chancellor's comments, suggesting they were the result of an alliance between Brown and Prescott, "who is strongly in favour of regional government".

Prescott's aides had also been "raising the stakes in the internal battle to commit the party to a strong regional dimension in its forthcoming manifesto". Late the previous year Richard Caborn, the trade minister and a close friend of Mr Prescott, had told a Fabian Society meeting in York: "I believe the radical programme of constitutional change we embarked on in 1997 is incomplete without an answer to the so-called English question. Regions need a clear voice to promote economic development and that in my view is best achieved through (elected) regional assemblies".

Prescott seemed to have got his way in March 2001. Blair, "known to be cool on further devolution in the wake of the creation of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments" told business leaders in Cardiff that the government was ready to go further. But only with the consent of people living in the regions. This was regarded as a "massive boost" to regional campaigners. Two weeks earlier, Prescott had promised delegates at Labour's spring conference a green paper on regional government.

Despite this, when the Labour Party issued its manifesto just before the June election, it was content merely to "strengthen regional economies with venture capital funds and new powers for reformed Regional Development Agencies". And its promise to make provision for directly elected government in the regions was vague, hedged with the referendum caveat and the condition that "predominantly unitary local government" had to be established.

The tension between Blair and Prescott continued when there was no reference to English regions in the Queen's speech announcing the newly elected Labour government's legislative programme. This brought an intervention from Europhile Peter Mandelson, former Northern Ireland secretary and then "self-appointed champion of the regions". He warned that unless Westminster shed more power to the regions it would risk a two-tier England that was "dangerously unbalanced".

The pressure succeeded. At the earliest possible opportunity after the election, with the manifesto condition for "unitary authorities" far from satisfied, Prescott pushed out not a green but a white paper. Never mind that, with his co-author, Stephen Byers, he was besieged by the problems of Railtrack and an almost complete breakdown in the rail system. Clearly, for Mr Prescott, elected regions were more important – even to the extent of confronting his own prime minister.

John Prescott - no ordinary politicianBut then, Mr Prescott, born in 1938, is no ordinary politician. Best known for his garbled syntax, behind the fa├žade of an amiable – and sometimes not so amiable – blunderer, lies a man with an iron will. As a 17-year-old merchant seaman, he fought a bitter battle for the National Union of Seamen in a lengthy strike which led to its leadership – including Mr Prescott – being described by Harold Wilson as a "tightly knit group of politically motivated men". He joined the Labour Party in 1956, was parliamentary election agent for Chester in 1964 and stood as a Labour candidate for Southport in 1966. Four years later, he was elected to his present constituency, Kingston upon Hull East.

There is also a considerable "European" dimension to Mr Prescott’s career. In 1973, he became a delegate to the Council of Europe, where he spent two years, emerging as leader of the British Labour group. He then joined the European Parliament in 1975. That was at the height of Labour's referendum campaign for continued membership of the "Common Market" and just as the nascent regional policy was emerging in the EEC, with the launch of the ERDF. And so strong were his "European" credentials that he was offered, but declined, the position of EU commissioner.

Thus, Prescott's introduction to European politics came some thirty years ago. And, from his own mouth, he dates his enthusiasm for regional policy "…back more than 30 years". Therefore, either shortly before or, given some latitude for an "approximate" 30 years, during his tenure as a UK delegate to the Council of Europe, Mr Prescott became a convert to regionalism. It seems hard to believe that his thinking was not influenced by ideas then current in the Council, or subsequently while he was in the European Parliament.

Not long after his return from "Europe" in 1981, undoubtedly still imbued with enthusiasm for regional policy, Prescott became Labour's regional affairs and devolution spokesman, under Michael Foot, who asked him to draw up a new policy framework to secure agreement for devolution for Scotland, Wales and the English regions. The result was a publication: "Alternative Regional Strategy: a framework for discussion", which set out plans for devolving power to Scotland and Wales and, predictably, the creation of English regions. To these objectives, Prescott, with his background in European politics, would remain constant.

Sir Jeremy Beecham - Prescott's co-conspiratorThen, crucially, in 1989, Prescott was elected to the Labour Party's ruling body, the National Executive Council (NEC). Also on the NEC was another ardent regionalist, Sir Jeremy Beecham, then Labour leader of Newcastle upon Tyne City Council.

Having served on the NEC's Local and Regional Government sub-committee, Beecham was also Vice Chairman of the Northern Regional Councils Association. He was Chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA), was leader of its Labour Group, and was to become Chairman of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities. He was made President of the British Urban Regeneration Association (BURA) in 1995 and served as a member of the President of the Board of Trade's Working Party on Competitiveness. From 1987 to 1996, he worked with the Joseph Rowntree Memorial Trust, an organisation that generously funds the Campaign for English Regions and which financed much of the Scottish Constitutional Convention that pressured for Scottish devolution.

Apart from their positions on the NEC, Prescott and Beecham would have had ample reason for meeting frequently and indeed they did, not least when Prescott in July 1997 – shortly after Labour came to power - invited Beecham to work in a joint venture called the "The Central-Local Partnership". This had been set up by the government and the LGA as "a forum for central and local government to work together to tackle the multiple causes of social and economic decline, and to improve local services".

Together, the Prescott-Beecham partnership has worked quietly and steadily to pave the way for regionalisation – often on arcane initiatives such as the “reform” of local government finance which would allow local authorities to take out capital loans without first having to seek central government approval. This would enable regional authorities to approach the EIB for loans without needing to refer to the government.

But the vital element of the relationship was the route into the LGA through Beecham's chairmanship. This was important because the LGA's sister organisation, with which it shares an office in Brussels, is the Local Government International Bureau (LGIB). It serves as its European and international arm and, in particular, acts as the UK member of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions - one of the main driving forces behind regionalisation in Europe.

In England, the LGA – with Beecham at is head – is the driver of regionalisation, co-ordinating a plethora of allied associations, including the ERN, all moving towards the same end. The role of these "allied associations" was noted by a University of Wales researcher who concluded that bottom up "local authority regionalism" had emerged in the 1990s through them. Funded by constituent authorities and composed of nominated members and seconded officers, these associations, he asserted, were working to create agreed policy on economic development, transport and land use questions and EU structural funds policy.

Small wonder that when Prescott published his White Paper, his co-enthusiast, Sir Jeremy, responded positively: "The LGA is keen to ensure that regional assemblies have the backing of local people and that the process for establishing them does not divert councils from improving their services to local people. Regional assemblies should embody a genuine devolution of power from Whitehall". Unlike thousands of councillors, a hostile media and an unenthusiastic public, he had no qualms whatsoever about the idea. It was a matter of how, not whether.

And, despite the rejection of the ideal by the overwhelming "no" vote in the North-East region, the agenda continues to this day, pushed by Prescott, imbued with his thirty-year-old enthusiasm, engendered by his work in the Council of Europe.

No one else on the Labour benches seems to show as much enthusiasm for regionalisation and, should the man depart, there is some hope that the project will be quietly dropped. Whether they be from Mrs Prescott or his fellow MPs, therefore, we do hope that the knives are out for the deputy prime minister.

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