President Gideon and Lame Duck Dave
Listening to our future leader on the Andrew Marr Show (BBC1 22 November 2015) it strikes me that we (the UK) have a very odd national political leadership.
The Chancellor is becoming increasingly Presidential speaking on all sorts of matters and appearing in photo-opportunities such as in GCHQ and in various provinces as “their leaders” sign up to his preferred mayoral (presidential) form of local government.
The Prime Minister seems to be increasingly irrelevant as he puts his remaining energies into his final tilt at the European windmill.
Is this just an extreme version of the always difficult relationship between the Prime Minister and “his chancellor”? I think not.
Even though Gideon’s attempts to fund his tax give-ways (Inheritance Tax on “family homes”, reduced Corporation Tax etc.) from “cracking down” on the “working poor” has been temporarily stymied, he still seems to be exercising a relatively unrestrained mandate.
Under the cloak of the “Northern Powerhouse” he is imposing on “City Regions” a form of government that has been widely rejected. Mayors have been rejected almost everywhere when put to referenda. “City regions” while possibly obvious in terms of metropolitan areas like Greater Manchester, in areas like the North East (of England) which includes the huge rural areas of Northumberland and Durham stretches the definition of “city”.
Necessity is meant to be the reason; without “strong mayors” the Northern Powerhouse will not work – we are told.
But the Northern Powerhouse requires more than a “strong man” – Newcastle tried that in the 1960s when an over-powerful council leader (not even a Gideonian Mayor) pushed through huge changes but at a cost to the reputation on good governance. The Powerhouse needs an overarching vision and a structure to get “the great cities” (at a minimum Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds) to work together – initially with Government support (i.e. taxpayers’ money) to create an alternative economic centre to the country which can break the dependence of the North (of England) on exchequer support.
Yet we have seen the “Northern Electrification” of the conventional railway between Leeds and Manchester delayed – not by HS2 style debate – but good old fashioned Whitehall “book balancing” (contrast with Cross-Rail and the Great Western Electrification).
We have seen the Government stand back as the steel industry has taken a pounding – in effect saying “we can’t do anything – the combined forces of globalisation and EU regulation prevent us from acting” (despite other European Countries finding ways to support their steel industries).
So is Gideon’s Northern Powerhouse actually intended to be a new economic engine – or is it a cloak to devolve the problem (and costs) of regeneration back onto the various parts of the North? Will we in the future hear Westminster and Whitehall saying “don’t blame us for the cuts, blame your mayors – you elected them”?
Mayoral Government is essentially binary – even with a better voting system, electing one person means that you don’t get consensus, you get “rule by the least unpopular” – which in most city regions is likely to be perpetual Labour with very occasional outbursts of various “independent” Conservatives. Power will be concentrated not in council committee rooms but in (Labour) party selection committees.
Whilst it may be thought to go against the Conservative desire to take power and rule where-ever and when-ever possible, such a system suits Conservatives like Gideon. Binary-ism suits him – it reduces all fights to a fight between two dogs one of which is Conservative. This has two advantages.
He knows that binary-ism inhibits genuine political innovation – A Green Mayor of one of these City regions is almost as unthinkable as a Liberal Mayor. With power concentrated in the Mayor’s parlour, Greens, Liberals, UKIPpers and other “disruptives” in committee rooms are powerless and – more importantly – pointless. Through the monopoly nature of mayoral (or presidential) power, it also tends to inhibit change until there is a political earthquake. (The London Mayor is not a good comparison because London is far more balanced politically between Left and Right than the Northern City Regions.)
He also knows that in many parts of the country Conservatives cannot win until Labour is thoroughly discredited. And what better way of doing this than a system of Labour Mayors ruling big city regions which fail due to lack of funding, lack of vision and local infighting?
Gideon is a raw politician – much of what he does, when stripped back, is for short-term naked political benefit. He is very good at it. His tactics have as good as destroyed the Liberal Democrats for at least a generation.
The problem is that sort of politician – even in some highly dysfunctional republics – is not the sort of politician who should hold presidential, let alone prime ministerial office.