Sunday, May 10, 2015

The election results will matter for all of us

My column for The Journal immediately before the 2015 General Election (see here):

ELECTION campaigns are on the doorstep coming to a neighbourhood near you. It's safe to say there seems genuine and increasing interest in politics which can only be welcome. So what are some of the key issues for our region? The economy is one. Average weekly earnings have fallen since the coalition came to power in 2010. Despite substantial cuts, the national debt continues to grow from £974bn in 2010 to a whopping £1,402bn now. A rise of 44%. It's crucial that whichever party wins that budget responsibility is a the heart of any spending commitments. Britain didn't start the global crash, but we still feel its effects and more must be done.

In the North East, we continue to have the highest rate of unemployment in the UK. Food banks are being used by over 1 million people nationally. The UK's busiest food bank is in Newcastle's West End. Add to this the increasing number of zero hour contracts and low waged jobs and what you have is an economic recovery on the cheap. Britain cannot succeed if we aim to be a low wage, low skill economy.

And the news isn't all bad. It seems everyone - Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and more - are committed to increasing apprenticeship opportunities and these are badly needed to help young people find jobs. There is also significant regional investment, such as Hitachi Rail Europe's new factory in Newton Aycliffe championed by Phil Wilson that is a huge boost to the area. But there is clearly much more to be done to keep our region punching above its weight.

This fragile economic recovery is threatened by the prospect of an EU referendum. Ask any regional business leader about this and you'll be hard pressed finding any enthusiasm. Most recognise the importance of Britain's place in this crucial trade area, not least so the UK can be a voice in the EU's continuing reform.

A second major issue is the NHS. It has undergone an expensive restructuring by the government. The consequence is less funds earmarked for the NHS available to help doctors and nurses support patients on the front-line. This is not only a simple matter of increasing the numbers of doctors and nurses, but also better use of NHS funds away from major restructuring exercises towards improving patient care.

Public services concern a lot of people. We now seem to pay more and get less. Bus routes and fares are an example of this with cuts to services that connect villages and towns and fewer buses in evenings and weekends. Local bus services can be a lifeline. The North East Combined Authority is moving in the right direction in its push for a Quality Contract Scheme for Tyne and Wear. It must see this through. Parties that can deliver might not only earn people's votes, but help serve their local communities.

Immigration is an issue that plays differently than others for several reasons. Opinion polls show that voters rate immigration high if asked to rank the biggest national issues, but much lower when asked about the key issues for their local community. It's a fact that the North East has the lowest foreign born population than any region in the UK. Whatever its effects, immigration is felt less here than elsewhere.

Immigration has been useful as a political football to win public support often at the expense of facts, context or perspective. Our region benefited enormously historically from migration from Irish miners in our pit villages to Belgian refugees in Birtley's Elizbethville producing munitions to help Britain in WWI. Today, the overwhelming number of migrants to the North East are students attending our region's many fine universities and contributing to our local economy. Their loss would not be our gain.

If you listen to politicians like Nigel Farage, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it would be good to introduce an Australian-styled points-based immigration for the UK. But what you won't hear him say is that, yes, the UK already has a points-based immigration system - introduced years ago by PM Tony Blair. In fact, Blair's term of office saw the introduction of this system and the launch of citizenship tests, new requirements for English language proficiency, new guidance for assessing 'good character' for permanent residents and citizenship ceremonies. It is striking that all major parties are content to only tweak these essentials. So don't ask me why Labour doesn't trumpet this more loudly.

If you've not met your local candidates, I'd recommend doing so now. It's easy to do. Many have local offices where you can chat about the issues that matter most to you. Social media has improved the public's ability to contact candidates. The election results will matter for all of us. In a close race like this, every vote will count - so let's hope many voices are heard.

Thom Brooks is Professor of |Law and Government at Durham University and tweets at @thom_ brooks

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