Richard North, 07/05/2021  

In a particularly cynical piece of electoral manipulation, voters in West Yorkshire were confronted yesterday with a lengthy ballot slip for a politician who will be styled as the "mayor" of West Yorkshire.

This, by any other name is the reintroduction of John Prescott's failed regional government programme, which hit the rocks in 2004 when the voters of the putative North-East region heavily defeated a proposal to create a regional assembly by 78 to 22 percent.

In anticipation of a victory, further referendums for the North West England and Yorkshire and the Humber had been planned but, after such a heavy defeat in what was expected to be the strongest area, those referendums were never held.

Then, on 3 May 2012 Conservative-Lib-Dem coalition government held separate referendums in the Bradford, Leeds and Wakefield districts of West Yorkshire asking whether they should be led by directly elected mayors.

This was part of a broader initiative which covered the 12 largest English cities and, in response, the electorates of the three West Yorkshire districts voted, respectively, 55.1, 63.3 and 62.2 percent against the proposition.

One might have thought, as a result, that the whole idea of messing with local government in the region might have been abandoned, but Cameron's coalition was not minded to take a mere "no" from the electorates for an answer.

In the same year, a West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) was proposed and then negotiated between the coalition government, Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership and the five West Yorkshire local government districts of Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield.

Effectively, this would involve creating a brand new authority, taking over from West Yorkshire County Council which had been set up in 1974 after the passage of the Local Government Act 1972, and abolished in 1986 in favour of the unitary authority system.

Side-stepping the inconvenience of a referendum, which – on past form – might have blocked the five councils' ambitions, public participation was restricted to a carefully-managed "consultation" process. This allowed the five districts to collude with the government in setting up their combined authority, which was established on 1 April 2014 after statutory approval on 31 March.

At the heart of the new enterprise was a £1.8 billion "bribe", supposedly transferred from central control to the new authority, to cover investment on such matters as transport, skills, housing and regeneration.

But, spread over 30 years and between five metropolitan districts with a combined population of 2.3 million, that amounted to about £26 per head of population per year, or a mere £12 million a year for each district.

The overall annual sum is less than the what is need to deal with the epidemic of potholes in the region, and – doubtless to compensate for the headline largess - West Yorkshire's road maintenance funding – perilously inadequate at best - has been slashed by 22 percent for 2021/22, a reduction of £10.2 million, from £46.7 to £36.5 million.

The district councillors have been cheaply bought, by an annual sum less than twice the size of the annual road maintenance budget – which is in any event subject to the willingness of future chancellors over the next three decades to honour the funding agreement.

Thus, yesterday, voters in West Yorkshire were confronted by the still unfamiliar supplementary voting system for a politician that they hadn't asked for, leading an authority which they also hadn't asked for, in circumstances where, had they had been formally consulted by way of a referendum, they would probably have said "no".

Ironically, although this travesty of a system has been set up by the democracy-loving Tories, it is Starmer's Labour party which is set to be the immediate beneficiary – and a potential loser.

The Labour candidate is Tracy Brabin, currently MP for Batley and Spen – first elected in 2016 after the murder of Jo Cox. Selected in December as Labour's candidate for West Yorkshire "mayor", she is standing for a position which also takes on the duties of the police and crime commissioner.

But, according to the Electoral Commission, no standing MP is allowed to fulfil PCC duties, which will require Brabin to step down as MP – which she has pledged to do if she wins the election.

The downside for Labour is that Brabin's seat of Batley and Spen was a Tory target in the 2019 general, which they had hopes of winning. And while Brabin had re-taken the seat in the 2017 general with a stonking vote of 29,844 against the Conservative's 20,833, she did not repeat that performance in 2019, her vote dropping to 22,594.

However, it should be noted that the Conservative vote also dropped, to 19,069 – the two lead parties affected by the intervention of a newly formed independent party, with the unlikely name of the Heavy Woollen District Independents.

Led by Aleksandar Lukic, who was the chairman for UKIP's Dewsbury, Batley and Spen branch until 2017, it fronted Paul Halloran who managed the feat of eroding to votes of both parties and possibly saving Brabin from electoral annihilation – aided, perhaps, by the Brexit Party which polled 1,678 votes.

This puts the constituency – and any potential by-election – in the same complex league as Hartlepool, which had its 2019 vote heavily influenced by the Brexit Party, again possibly rescuing the seat for the Labour candidate.

The story is picked up by the Financial Times, which has Barry Sheerman, MP for nearby Huddersfield, saying: "A lot of people took a long time to wake up to the fact that the West Yorkshire mayor will have police powers, meaning Tracy will have to resign quite promptly".

However, he dismisses fears of losing a by-election, saying: "We are aware of that and it will be a challenging by-election, as by-elections always are", then adding: "I think the party is aware of that, but I think as long as we get the right candidate it is winnable".

The FT has one well-placed Labour party figure saying that the party was lining up Lisa Johnson, director of external relations at the GMB trade union, and Fazila Aswat, the office manager who was with Cox when she was murdered, as likely candidates for the seat.

On the other hand, Conservative campaigners think that if Halloran's votes can be taken by the Tories, along with some from the Brexit party, they might have a chance of winning.

What could make the difference, though, is that the constituency also has a higher than national average ethnic minority population (mostly Muslims of Pakistani descent), who historically favour Labour. Thus, while senior Labour figures are aware of the potential for a loss in Batley and Spen, they hope it will be more defendable than Hartlepool.

One senior Conservative MP also cautioned that Batley and Spen is "a different world" from Hartlepool and would by no means be an easy win for the party. But then, this is assuming that Brabin wins the contest for the West Yorkshire "mayor".

This, we will not know until Sunday, when it is fair to say that the result will be eagerly anticipated only by the career politicians and their hangers-on, in a sterile contest that has absolutely nothing to do with public aspirations.

There will be a frisson of excitement when the Hartlepool result is known but, and the Scottish and London Mayor results may attract some interest but, by and large, politics will then continue without any serious engagement with the people.

Locally, much will depend on how well the parties game the system, with one analyst remarking that there was a tiny Brexit party vote in Batley and Spen so the result would depend on the Labour to Conservative defections. "Labour's best policy is to play for time given the vaccine 'sugar high' for the government in polls probably falls off come the autumn", he says.

Whatever else happens, in this broken system, democracy doesn't get much of a look in.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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