It’s nearly ten years since I took part in an incredibly memorable hustings at Oakwell, the home of Barnsley Football Club. That evening, which is seared into my memory, Barnsley Central Constituency Labour Party members met to select their prospective parliamentary candidate ahead of a forthcoming by-election. It was a nerve-racking experience, not least because I had to draw lots with another candidate to see who progressed following a tie in the second round of voting!
This evening, I will have the pleasure of chairing a selection hustings for the inaugural West Yorkshire mayoralty. It is a great opportunity for local members to grill the candidates ahead of the eventual winner being announced next month. While I am sure it will prove to be a less stressful experience for me and involve fewer games of chance for the candidates, the stakes are incredibly high for the region.
The reason is obvious: Covid has hit the North of England hard. The brutal reality is that rather than levelling up, we are on course for a painful period of levelling down. In South Yorkshire, the level of people claiming unemployment-related benefits is now higher than at any time since the grim aftermath of the pit closures. While this is cause for great concern, it is in no way surprising.
That is because the UK is one of the most regionally unequal countries in the developed world. Where you grow up should not determine where you end up but, shamefully, if you live in the North you are more likely to earn less and die younger. Instead of addressing this disparity, the government has chosen to pursue a policy agenda of giving with one hand while taking with the other.
The ‘Northern Powerhouse’ serves as a prime example. It’s more than five years since George Osborne launched the government’s flagship proposal to boost local economies through investment. In that same period, an additional 200,000 northern children have been driven into poverty, largely due to the former Chancellor’s brutal cuts to welfare and local government spending.
One policy area in which there has been near consensus is on the need for greater devolution. Establishing regional mayors has become a key tenet of the government’s approach. West Yorkshire’s will be the sixth of its kind in the North. Whoever is elected will be responsible for an important remit including economic regeneration, transport, planning and skills, and much more besides.
It is a massive undertaking. Decisions about allocating precious and often scarce resources are made daily. As an MP, with the unusual privilege of also serving as a mayor, I know first-hand that Labour can and does deliver in regional government. In South Yorkshire, since I was elected, we have created or protected 15,000 jobs. Our pioneering ‘Working Win’ programme has helped 6,000 people into work. We’ve established a regional net-zero partnership to decarbonise our economy, plant millions of trees, champion active travel and achieve net-zero emissions by 2040 at the latest.
Just this week, we approved £72m in funding to kick start our fight back from the public health crisis. This is money that will be spent on revitalising our high streets, creating apprenticeships and supporting local businesses. At every turn, we are using innovative funding arrangements to support priority projects and drawing people together to maximise the benefits of devolution.
I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved. But as a friendly warning to West Yorkshire’s shortlisted candidates: the job comes with huge frustrations. On both funding and powers, the government simply has not devolved enough. Too much time and effort is spent tinkering, not transforming.
One of the most damaging examples of this Whitehall-centric ideology was the government’s approach to the Test and Trace programme. Despite an eye-watering cost of £12bn, the outsourced system reached only 60.4% of contacts in the week prior to the second lockdown in England.
Calderdale Council took matters into its own hands when it became clear that the national strategy was failing to protect its communities. The West Yorkshire borough pioneered a locally-led scheme that pushed the contact rate to 95%. More proof, not that we needed it, of why the government must relinquish control to local public health teams.
I champion devolution like this, not just because it is right in principle but because it works in practice. At a local and regional level, it means Labour has the power to change people’s lives for the better. If we are to win trust again, we must harness that power to help build collaborative, sustainable and inclusive economies in every town, city, region and nation we represent.
This evening, the focus is on West Yorkshire. To our candidates: thank you for stepping forward and good luck. To our members: let’s have a comradely debate, then do everything we can to elect a Labour mayor for your region.
Labour’s candidates for the inaugural West Yorkshire mayoralty are Tracy Brabin MP, Hugh Goulbourne and councillor Susan Hinchcliffe. The winner of the selection contest will be declared on December 11th, and the election is set to take place on May 6th, 2021.