People's Assembly supporters on the People's March for the NHS People's Assembly supporters on the People's March for the NHS

James Doran, a socialist activist in north-east England, considers some repercussions of the Scottish referendum for the anti-austerity movement

The Scottish independence referendum has triggered a debate on development and devolution in an age of permanent austerity imposed by the establishment across Europe. What does this mean for a region like the North East of England, which has previously rejected devolved government?

There are signs that the managers of the centralised British state intend to devolve responsibility for austerity. In England, the Labour leadership hold out the promise of new powers for local government if they win the 2015 general election and – as the parliamentary leadership intend – continue with the cuts.

Devolved government embedded

The Labour government which came to office in 1997 introduced devolved government for Scotland and Wales, subject to referenda in each nation. A later referendum on a regional assembly for the North East of England was rejected by a majority of voters. Why did an English region disenfranchised by Tory rule at Westminster like Scotland and Wales reject devolution?

It could be argued that nationalist parties in both Scotland and Wales, the long years of Tory rule, and the erosion of the banal nationalism of the British state – with British Rail, British Steel, etc. no longer existing – also eroded the confidence of the working class in winning reforms in a unitary state. Devolution to national units offers the hope of stopping the worst of Westminster.

In Scotland, Labour has lost votes to the Scottish National Party, whose leadership distanced itself from the immediate goal of independence in favour of positioning as a social democratic alternative to New Labour. In Wales, Labour’s leadership has put “clear red water” between the party in the Assembly and the party at Westminster, with the nationalist Plaid Cymru increasingly willing to be viewed as a socialist party since Leanne Wood became leader.

In contrast, the North East of England does not have a historical national identity discrete from the rest of England and consequently the Labour Party maintained itself as the hegemonic regional party, controlling an overwhelming majority of councils and Westminster constituencies. The Liberal Democrats could have remained an enduring and strong opposition in the large towns and cities of the North East, but it has been weakened by entering the coalition government with the Tories.

Regional government rejected

In the North East’s referendum a decade ago, the offer of a regional assembly was successfully portrayed by opponents as a useless talking shop, “another bunch of politicians”. Those advocating the assembly, including major trades unions, could not argue it would insulate the region from the policies of a future Tory government.

Given the absence of a North East equivalent of the SNP or Plaid Cymru, the proposed regional assembly lacked the economic powers to win sufficient mobilisation from the Labour Party’s base in the region.

Eddie George, the governor of the Bank of England at the time, had openly declared that a strong pound was necessary for the City of London’s power as a financial centre. He was explicit in saying this was a price worth paying, even if it held back export industries in regions like the North East.

And far from being a stronghold of “old Labour”, the North East was the base of New Labour – thus socialists in the party suspected that a regional assembly could intensify, not challenge, the neoliberal agenda.

Local identity versus national austerity?

In local, national, and European election campaigns in the North East, Labour consciously positions itself as the party of the North East – an appeal which, under New Labour, replaced the rhetoric of democratic socialism with technocratic regionalism.

The powers and resources of local government having been eroded under the Tories, the autonomy of councils was not restored by the New Labour government.

So despite cuts to local authorities falling disproportionately hard on North East councils after 2010, there was little prospect of resistance to central government of the kind which took place in the 1980s.

A North East council leader told a meeting of managers and officers that he did not want to be “another Ted Knight”. After the council leader had left the room, it was left to the trade union representative to explain to bemused managers this reference to the former left-wing leader of Lambeth council who took a stand against Thatcher’s savage attacks on local government. .

The memory of the short-lived stand taken by some Labour councils in the 1980s has been either erased or re-written – with some Labour councillors even expressing the fear that they could go to jail or lose their house if cuts budgets were not passed!

Assembling an alternative to austerity

The second North East People’s Assembly is due to meet on November 1st. A year ago, the regional PA was the largest social movement meeting in Newcastle for many years – with hundreds of trade unionists and community activists from across the North East attending.

I will be going, along with other activists from Darlington, to learn from others and share our experiences. In the past year, I have participated in Teesside People’s Assembly demonstrations – the #BurnAusterity event last November and lobbies against council cuts across the sub-region. In the recall conference, a motion on economic democracy that I co-wrote with other Teesside PA members was accepted into the aims and objectives of the broad coalition against cuts and privatisation.

Thanks to connections I’ve made through the People’s Assembly, I was able to express my support – in a personal capacity – for the Yes campaign in the Scottish independence referendum. I was quoted in a Scottish newspaper, linking the struggle to defend the welfare state to a written constitution preventing governments from selling off services against the will of citizens.

I’ve also taken part in actions by Darlington Trades Council in solidarity with striking workers in both the public and private sector. I have marched with hundreds against the racism of a few dozen fascists gathering in Middlesbrough to stir up division amongst ordinary people. And with the “Darlo Mums” I was involved in the People’s March for the NHS – an inspiring journey from Jarrow to London, with over twenty rallies in towns and cities, supported by thousands of people.

If the establishment say they are now open to more devolution, including re-visiting the question of the English regions, then this is something anti-cuts campaigners should seize upon. Organisations like the Radical Independence Campaign have shown it is possible to mobilise with people who have not previously been active, linking a sense of place to class politics.

The People’s Assembly movement is linking up trade unions and community activists, giving more people the confidence to speak out in their workplaces and neighbourhoods. Coming after co-ordinated strikes against the pay freeze and the TUC’s Britain Needs A Pay Rise demonstration, the second North East People’s Assembly can make sure that if there is to be a debate about devolution in our region, activists have the confidence to put the ongoing austerity programme in the spotlight.

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