Saturday, 1 September 2007

Home grown

Now I've never been a big fan of the Yorkshire Post and Tom Richmond can certainly claim to be 'outspoken' - which isn't a bad thing, especially when it sparks a debate.

And Tom has done just that today in his essay bemoaning the lack of home-grown politicians. I think it's well worth a read but what it doesn't answer is WHY we're not encouraging more local people to go into politics.

The two questions we need to ask of ourselves are how do we attract potential political candidates into the party and how can we enthuse young people - the community leaders of tomorrow - that getting involved in politics is a noble and worthwhile cause.

Recruiting new members is great but a membership has to be sustainable. As I've experienced, ward meetings can be off-putting as new members tend to feel a bit excluded and baffled by our arcane agendas and party rules. We don't give them a simple introduction about how our party works, who does what and the opportunities available to them.

I think we also need to make these meetings more informal and family friendly. They should feel they're part of a social network and kept informed through email or a Facebook grouping as well as by letter for the elderly.

My ward councillor in Greenwich, Mary Mills, is in her 60s (hope you don't mind me saying that Mary) but she sends out an email twice a month to people who want to be kept up to date about what's happening in the ward - from on-going planning applications to what's coming up at the local theatre. She has an email list of hundreds, the vast majority non-party members just wanting to be kept abrest of what's happening. She had by far the highest number of votes of any of the ten candidates in her ward at the last council election.

As for encouraging young people, we need to let them take more decisions in our schools and in our communities. School Councils have been a great way of introducing them into citizenship - dealing with bullying, school meals and other concerns.

Positive peer leadership develops and the responsibility for maintaining good behaviour is shifted away from teachers and towards members of the classroom and school community. Pupils become able to resolve conflicts amongst their peers. Disruptive behaviour, vandalism, truancy and exclusions all reduce in schools with these councils.

I could go on, but please read Tom's article.

Tom Richmond: A lack of home-grown talent - Yorkshire Post, September 1 2007

"IF just one word defines Yorkshireness, the adjective "outspoken" would suffice.

People born within God's own county have a much-cherished reputation for speaking their minds. The cussedness of Sir Bernard Ingham and Geoffrey Boycott typifies this.

Yet who speaks for Yorkshire in the House of Commons – the great democratic forum for this country's supposed opinion-formers?

Certainly not the five MPs from this region who sit in Gordon Brown's new-look Cabinet. All were born outside the county.

Certainly not Caroline Flint, the new Yorkshire Minister appointed by Mr Brown to defend Yorkshire's interests in Parliament. She is from Twickenham, a fact unreported on her personal website.

And certainly not those MPs elected two years ago to represent Yorkshire and Humberside. Only 23, less than half the total number of 56, were actually born in this region, never mind the constituency that they represent.

It's a far cry from the era, not so many years ago, when Labour officials whistled down a mine shaft for a prospective MP to emerge, almost certainly a trade union official, the coal dust ingrained in his skin, or when the Tories turned to the local business community to fill any vacancy.

Now it's more likely that a prospective candidate will be a public-sector official, or young professional with little life experience, who has served the briefest of apprenticeship in some distant corner of the country.

Their insight into Yorkshire and, more particularly, the character of local people, will have been cribbed from the internet.

Yet it is debatable, when one looks at the effectiveness of this new political breed, whether intellectual prowess is an adequate substitute for local knowledge.

This southern bias was, perhaps, best exemplified by the Government's tardy response to the recent Yorkshire floods – the final bill for which could be £2bn. Even though Gordon Brown's first days in 10 Downing Street were dominated by the failed suicide bombings, this was no excuse for the new Prime Minister to take 10 days before acknowledging the scale of the disaster. However, this does not justify the pedestrian response of the five-strong Yorkshire contingent in his Cabinet – or that of John Healey, the Wentworth MP and Floods Minister.

Homes and businesses in each of their constituencies were left under several feet of storm water and sewage.

Would the response have been any swifter if the Ministers concerned represented marginal seats where they were not guaranteed a job for life – or if they had a greater empathy with Yorkshire?

One insider insists they were simply overwhelmed by the breadth and haste of the Whitehall changes that were unveiled by Gordon Brown.

But would this excuse have been rendered redundant had Yorkshire been represented by backbenchers – sufficiently independent of mind – whose views were respected, and who could have alerted the powers-that-be to the unfolding disaster? My guess, again, is yes.

Almost a quarter of a century ago, at the height of Margaret Thatcher's popularity, there were a significant number of MPs born outside the county boundary.

The significant difference between now and then was that many were educated in this region – or became regarded as "honorary Yorkshiremen", because of the rigour of their Parliamentary interventions.

Sir Keith Joseph, Lady Thatcher's policy inspiration, was born in London. His fellow Leeds MP Merlyn Rees, Labour's former Home Secretary, hailed from South Wales. Denis Healey, Chancellor of the Exchequer, came from Kent.

Healey's family only moved to Keighley when he was five-years-old. "It was like emigrating to another country, to leave a gimcrack suburb in outer London for the grimy millstone grit of the industrial North," he wrote in his memoirs.

Yet, to this day, Labour's former deputy leader, now Lord Healey of Riddlesden – he takes his title from the small village in the West Riding where he grew up and celebrated his 90th birthday this week – is regarded as "a son of Keighley".

This was a generation of politicians who grew up in an era when the importance of local communities truly mattered – and they remembered it throughout their public service.

Rees is, perhaps, better remembered in parts of Leeds for his long association with Hunslet Rugby League Club; Healey became a great champion of the Yorkshire countryside.

When they spoke in Parliament, their opponents listened. And, more importantly, these were not lone voices. The roll-call of the 1983 Yorkshire intake at Westminster read like a veritable "who's who" of British politics with names such as Leon Brittan, Roy Mason, Derek Fatchett, Marcus Fox and Geoffrey Lofthouse.

There was also a younger generation of MPs who were never backward in coming forward – people like John Prescott, Austin Mitchell and Barry Sheerman.

These, and many others, were all voices that came to be respected, even though their views may not have been universally shared.

Indeed, both David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) and Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen) told me independently that they respected each other's forthrightness as opposed to their political views.

But they went further. Peacock attributes her local roots as being instrumental in her retaining her most marginal of constituencies from 1983 until the Tory rout of 1997 that saw Tony Blair come to power. She had a majority of 1,407 votes in 1992.

And, while Hinchliffe admits that he was fortunate to represent the city where he was actually born, he believes that constituency parties have a duty to select prospective Parliamentarians from this region at the very least.

I agree. It speaks volumes about the decline of the political process when neither of the main parties can find 50 or so willing and able candidates who were raised in Yorkshire.

Indeed, one only has to look at the seat that he vacated in 2005 to see, at first hand, the Yorkshire void that is now so evident at Westminster.

The current incumbent is Coventry-born Mary Creagh who was Labour leader on Islington Council in London which she still considers to be her home.

One of her more recent Commons interventions was a question about the capital's refurbished South Bank Centre – with a reference to how she had participated in the reopening celebrations with her young child.

Yet her Tory opponent at the next election will not be an aspiring local politician, but a financial analyst looking to relocate to West Yorkshire from the capital.

How can either candidate credibly claim to speak for the people of Wakefield – a proud community near where the aforementioned Geoffrey Boycott grew up – when their roots, and instincts, lie 200 miles down the M1?

They can only overcome this barrier if they possess the eloquence, and political know-how, to overcome this shortcoming, a declining skill.

Worryingly, however, this is just one example. Countless Parliamentary seats at the next election will be contested by rival candidates whose links to Yorkshire are negligible at best.

The county, to them, will be a place where

they have a weekend base if they are elected. They will not have grown up in the region and come to learn of the area's history, heritage and characteristics.

As a consequence, they will not be speaking for Yorkshire when they stand up in the House of Commons to make their maiden speech. While some bland platitudes will, no doubt, be spoken, they will be speaking for themselves – and not necessarily their constituents.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions. George Mudie, the Leeds East MP, remains a proud Scot. But at least he cut his political teeth on Leeds City Council. And while Yorkshire-born William Hague and David Davis are two of the Conservative Party's big-hitters, their own interests – business or political or both – always appear to come first.

Nevertheless, the time has come for the main parties to place "localism" at the heart of their selection process."


Anonymous said...

Then there's the counter argument: that Yorkshire's notoriously insular communities - take Hull - are desperately in need of fresh blood and fresh ideas from the 'outside world'; too much 'localness' can generate ideological stagnancy and encourages nepotism....Pete.

David Prescott said...

Hello Pete. Thanks for commenting.

That's a fair very point. Tom's article certainly prompts an interesting debate and I think as it is a comment piece for the Yorkshire Post, it's obviously skewed towards the local. I don't actually agree with everything he says. It's a bit of a polemic!

Personally, I think Hull people have shown great vision and and 'fresh ideas' over the years - leading the fight for the abolition of slavery, rebuilding the city after the war, establishing their own telecommunications system, pioneering broadband television and funding and building the best municipal stadium in the country.

As for nepotism, I think we all believe in a meritocracy. But to counter this charge, we do need to widen the pool of talent to look for the next generation of Labour politicians and encourage more people to take part and at local political level, it ususally has to be local people.

So I'd be keen to hear your thoughts on the questions I set - how do we encourage local people to get involved in politics and how do we enthuse young people that politics makes a difference.

We're all for 'fresh blood' Pete - be it sourced locally or from 'outside.' The most important thing is that we find it!

Anonymous said...

But I wonder when being born somewhere ceases to make one 'local'? does living away from your birthplace for most of your adult life still make one a 'local'? At least Hull local government politicians live in the communities they seek to represent and don't choose to lecture their hometown from the comfort of a fashionable London post code where they're making a fast buck and crying crocodile tears in public for Hull's flood victims.

Philippa, East Riding

David Prescott said...

Thanks for leaving your comments, Phillipa. As it is, I make a very slow buck in my business but that's by the by.
As for your assertion that you cease to be a 'local' because you live in another place, then if we follow your argument the Beatles ceased to be Liverpudlians, Sean Connery is not Scottish and Shirley Bassey isn't Welsh!
But thanks for joining the debate.