Paul Linford: English regional devolution is being taken seriously - and so it should be

Journal columnist and former political editor Paul Linford on the bidding war between the two main parties over the devolution agenda

Philip Toscano/PA Wire William Hague
William Hague

In last week’s column I wrote that the forthcoming election will essentially be a contest between a Labour Party determined to highlight the existential threat to the NHS posed by the Conservatives, and a Conservative Party seeking to highlight the threat to the economy posed by Labour.

But while I don’t expect that essential narrative to change between now and polling day, that is not to say that other significant points of issue between the two main parties won’t arise.

It has been clear since the result of the Scottish independence referendum last September that one of these subsidiary issues will be the future of the UK.

Both have very different ideas on how to “rebalance” the constitution in the wake of the cross-party proposal for greater Scottish devolution, and with the election now just three months away, both chose this week to set out their various stalls.

For both parties, it has to some extent meant raiding the archives for policies which, first time round, failed to find a great deal of favour with the electorate.

So for the Tories, this has meant a return to the ‘English Votes for English Laws’ on which William Hague fought and lost the 2001 election, but which has since been given much greater potency by the additional powers promised to the Scots.

Likewise Labour has dusted down the regional devolution agenda which seemed to have died a death with the North East Assembly referendum in 2004 and given it a fresh twist.

While regional assemblies as such are no longer on the agenda, regional devolution certainly is, with the party promising to transfer up to £30bn to local and regional bodies such as the North-East combined authority - irrespective of whether or not they chose to have elected mayors.

It is perhaps this latter point which most distinguishes the two parties’ approach in the ongoing bidding war over how to devolve powers and funding to the English regions and city regions.

Chancellor George Osborne had made it clear that that while he is prepared to entrust large sums of money to areas such as Greater Manchester which have opted for the mayoral structure, those cities which have rejected it such as Sheffield have been denied such largesse.

Labour also appears to be taking a more countrywide approach to the issue, with Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls attacking the Tories to focusing their devolution policies on the Northern cities at the expense of other areas.

While Mr Osborne has talked at length about creating a ‘Northern Powerhouse,’ Mr Balls went out of his way this week to stress that he wanted to see Midlands, Eastern and Southern powerhouses too.

But while Labour doubtless hopes that promising to devolve Whitehall budgets for housing, transport, business support, employment and skills by 2021 will boost its support in all of those regions, the Tories are seeking to capitalise on growing English resentment towards the powers now enjoyed by the Scots.

Their plans, published by Mr Hague this week, would see Scottish MPs stripped of the power to “impose” income tax rate changes on England , while English MPs would have a veto on devolved issues like schools and health which only affect them.

In unveiling the plan, Mr Hague was all too aware that it stood no chance of being implemented this side of an election, but that was not the point.

This was in fact pure electioneering by the former party leader, an attempt to outflank the English nationalism of Ukip while simultaneously seeking to embarrass Labour over its reliance on the votes of Scottish MPs.

What is likely to be the electoral impact of all this? Well, in the North East, it could theoretically work both ways.

But while it is true that there is a measure of disquiet in the region over the new powers being given to Scotland and the additional economic advantages this may convey, the distrust felt within the region towards the Tories is at least as great.

What is certain, though, is that both parties are now taking the interrelated issues of English constitutional reform and English regional devolution a good deal more seriously than has been the case at any previous election.

And in the longer run, that can probably only be a good thing for the region.

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