The people of Doncaster and Barnsley voted almost 70% “Leave” in the European referendum last year, despite their MPs strongly urging “Remain.” But they returned to the fold – if they ever really left it – in the June general election, returning their MPs with substantially increased majorities: Donny’s Dame Rosie Winterton with 10,000-plus and Dan Jarvis with 15,000-plus in Barnsley.
And give or take the odd municipal foray, that was supposed to be that for the next five years. Job done. But politics has a way of repeating itself, the third time as tragi-comedy.
People are taking part in a local referendum (“what, anether one?”) to decide whether they want these two former coalmining boroughs to be part of the Tory-inspired Sheffield City Region, or join Labour’s competing vision of One Yorkshire, a county-wide devolution settlement covering more than five million people with an economy rivalling that of Scotland.
More than half a million voters can have their say, either by post or on-line, and the result will be declared on 21 December, an unwanted Christmas gift for Communities Secretary Sajid Javid and his deeply-unpopular sidekick Jake Berry. They have already rejected the poll as invalid, possibly unlawful and incapable of forcing a change in government policy. So much for respecting the voice of the people.
More than that, ministers have insisted that they will go ahead with an election costing £1 million next May for a Metro-Mayor of Sheffield City Region, despite Doncaster and Barnsley councils (Labour controlled, like Sheffield) pulling out of the deal, along with others on the geographic fringes.
Bill Adams, Yorkshire and Humber regional secretary of the TUC, condemns this “unwanted election for a powerless mayor,” adding :”This will represent the first time that the Tory government will force a devolution deal and mayor onto local communities who want nothing to do with it.
“With only nominal powers, the South Yorkshire Region will not deliver for residents. It is merely a face-saving exercise to cover the embarrassment of government ministers. It delivers a weak voice for South Yorkshire and an even weaker one for the rest of us.”
Ministers were intially loud in demanding a “bottom-up” solution for Yorkshire devolution, But these are clearly the wrong bottoms. A snooty London spokesperson for Javid’s department insisted : “Government has been absolutely clear that it will not undo the Sheffield City Region deal.” This is Henry Ford devolution : any model, as long as we decide what it is.
Furthermore, as a punishment for Tyke temerity, the DWP has just “paused” – ie abandoned – a £5million Early Intervention Employment Support Pilot scheme for Sheffield aimed at giving one-to-one support to help the unemployed get back into work. The department blames “current uncertainty over the devolution of powers.”
This is blackmail, pure and simple. It won’t work. If there is one way to get local punters to support something, it’s Tories in London telling them that they ought not to want it. As the saying has it: “That can tell a Yorkshireman, but tha can’t tell him much.” Whitehall is lining tself up for a black eye.
It’s not as if the issue is deeply partisan. One Yorkshire has a surprising range of support across the political spectrum. It’s backed by the unions, 17 of the region’s 20 local authorities, the Institute of Directors, the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, half-heartedly by the Tory-minded Yorkshire Post, a number of MPs and ex-MPs, including the persuasive campaigner Gerry Sutcliffe, and for all I know by the proprietors of Betty’s Tea Rooms, jealous guardians of their Fat Rascal copyright.
Manchester, Teesside, the West Midlands, Bristol and other major conurbations have fallen for the Tory Metro-Mayor project. Stubborn Yorkshire has been holding out for years, and sending Jake Berry, a Lancashire MP, here to read the riot act was a waste of time. David Cameron was once caught indiscreetly saying he didn’t know Yorkshiremen hated each other as much as they hate outsiders. Well, he got that one wrong.
A Fat Rascal, by the way, is a fruit scone decorated with cheeky cherries and an almond face, not a knee-stroking Tory MP. Though on second thoughts…