Former Labour MP Hilton Dawson says that Westminster is “constitutionally incapable”. His new party will aim to empower people through regional devolution.
It’s a pretty well-known stat that the number of people who didn’t bother to vote at all in the last General Election outnumbers the combined number of people who voted for the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats. UKIP have, for the last year or so, been attempting to capitalise on this state of affairs by becoming the ‘people’s choice’, but despite the best efforts of privately-educated, former City trader, anti-establishment rebel and people’s champion Nigel Farage, the Kippers haven’t quite corned the market yet. But along with the Greens, they are the only ballot box choice for those disillusioned with the three main parties. Or are they? Not if you live in the North East of England.
A new political party has sprung up just south of Scotland, determined to take power away from Westminster and give it back to the people; a new kind of local democracy. Chaired by former Labour MP Hilton Dawson, the North East Party were formed in Newcastle last November, registered as a political party in May, and are standing 12 candidates in next year’s General Election. I spoke to Hilton Dawson about the party and its prospects.
“All I’ve seen from the Westminster leaders is platitudes,” Dawson tells me - “Ed Miliband talking about constitutional convention, and the Prime Minister talking about ‘empowering the great cities of the North’- Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems are all constitutionally incapable of delivering devolution to the North East.”
The NEP’s immediate aims are to return 12 MPs from various North East constituencies after next year’s general election to “stand up independently and accountably for the interests of North East England and who will work to bring real devolution here” and to support people “who share our values of democracy and equality.” They support people who want to stand for any election in the North East “on the basis that they will tackle local issues and make themselves fully accountable to local people”.
I make the point to Dawson, who served as Labour MP for Lancaster and Wyre between 1997 and 2005, and prior to leaving the party had been a Labour member for 35 years, that devolution is something which has been proposed to the North East before, in 2004 and which was on that occasion resoundingly rejected. Why would the North East say yes this time - what’s changed?
“Wales rejected devolution the first time around and then later voted for it,” Dawson points out. “I think people will vote for us because devolution palpably works. It does in Scotland and Wales, and the North East is the most ignored and deprived area of the country.
“We were in touch with all Westminster leaders ahead of the Scottish referendum, asking for equality. Scotland’s public services are of a much higher standard than ours in the North East are, just a matter of miles south of the border. If North East England was funded to the same extent that Scotland is, the North East would be £1bn better off.”
But it’s devolution that the NEP want, says Dawson, not independence, despite what he sees as Westminster failure to learn anything from the recent referendum on Scottish independence. “We don’t want independence; we’re very much committed to the UK in terms of foreign affairs, Europe and so on. What we want is our own democratic government, accountable to the people of the NE and if we get that, people will have more control over their own lives.”
And this isn’t purely about making positive changes in the North East either. The former Labour man is adamant that the time has come to it is time to ‘rid ourselves of the idiocy of the House of Lords’. The NEP want an elected second chamber in the House of Lords, he says, and a ‘slimmed down’ House of Commons which focusses primarily on law and international affairs, with local matters dealt with by devolved local governments.
“This is a very exciting time to be involved in constitutional politics,” Dawson assures me. “This is our greatest opportunity to change the constitution of the UK. We are bringing people back into politics who had become disillusioned with the previous way of doing things and bringing in people who hadn’t been engaged before.
“If we can get people more engaged in politics, we can change the North East, we can change England, we can change anything.”
By Alex Shilling