DEBATE ON REGIONALISATION

On Tuesday there was an  "enabling debate" on "regional governance" at
Northumbria University, which quite a few doubters attended.  
Unaccountably, I was sent an invitation to the "sherry reception" beforehand
  -  as a "key stakeholder in the region's future".   Had a good laugh about
this.  Wonder who thought to invite me, and why?

I went along nice and early, only to find I was far too unimportant for
anybody to want to talk to me.  One of the organisers did check to see who I
was,  but  then passed quickly on  (much smiling PR, but, after a brief
assessment of my insignificance, no attempt to introduce me to any of the
other "key stakeholders" present).

I settled down with an orange juice to watch the regional elite networking. 
After a bit, Neil Herron and a group from UKIP North East arrived.  At first
I kept my distance, thinking we'd be more likely to get a chance to speak in
the debate if we couldn't be identified as belonging to the same crowd. 
However, the fun of watching VIPS prancing and preening at each other was
beginning to pall,  and eventually I went across for a  little friendly
conversation.

I sat by myself again when we went in to the   -  no, can't call it a
debate.  First Nick Raynsford spoke on behalf of the government for about
twenty minutes, then someone else held forth at length  -  again, just hot
air.

After this there was a question and answer session, with a panel of
"experts": the Managing Director of Tyne Tees Television; a borough
councillor; a representative of the North East CBI; a professor from
Northumbria University, specialising in equality and diversity (weep, weep);
and Jack Cunningham, in the chair.

We had all been given a form to write a question on and hand in as we
entered the hall, and these slips were shuffled, then read off one at a time
by the chairman.  After one or two of the panel had given their answers to a
question, the person who had asked it was allowed a minute or so to comment,
and then a couple of  people from the audience were also invited to give
their views briefly, at the discretion of the "chair".

This way of "debating" the issues sabotaged dissent.

For a start, the two official speakers, both clearly in favour of "regional
governance",  had already taken up over  half an hour  spouting 
carefully-prepared waffle which did nothing but waste time and crowd out
genuine debate  -  the region "shaping its  future" (how on earth does a
region "shape its future"?), "a better quality of life"(for whom?),
"addressing the needs of all the community" (what, ALL of them? Are you
God?)...  etc, etc.

The questions from the floor were haphazard, giving us no opportunity to
build up a coherent argument against regionalisation, or  to have a
sustained  debate.  You know the sort of thing:  "Any-Questions" formula,
always giving the platform the last word.   And of course, most of us had no
experience of public speaking, so even when we had carefully written down
what we wanted to say, we tended to lose the thread or repeat ourselves
after the first few words, in the panic of the unfamiliar.

Naturally, any well-known and competent speakers among the opposition
(notably Neil Herron) were scrupulously ignored by the "chair", however hard
they tried to gain his (its?) attention .  And on the very day the Newcastle
Journal had reported that the auditor backed Herron's complaint against the
NEA for unlawful use of ratepayers' money!

I got to speak just because I was a woman (and sitting well away from the
censored Herron group).

Cunningham had been lamenting the lack of "diversity" in those asking to
join the discussion, so I made quite a good beginning, after he said
something like, "Ah, at last, a lady, over there!",  by informing him that I
wasn't speaking as a woman but as a person.  I then asked how a regional
assembly could do anything to reverse or control the flood of regulations
stemming from EU Directives  -  surely the only way to get rid of
bureaucracy was  to cut back on government, allowing individuals to make
their own choices and run their own lives?   So far, so good.  I should have
sat down, and left it at that.

Unfortunately I carried on, and began to bring in personal examples and give
way to connected but irrelevant trains of thought, which confused the issue.
  This made me appear laughable, irrational, emotional; but I couldn't
control it.  However much one half of my mind was trying to make me shut up,
I kept drivelling on, ruining any claim to be taken seriously.  I think I
gave way like this in outrage at the complacent arrogance of the people
driving the regional campaign, who give no weight to the objections of
private individuals, just go on regardless, planning a world fit for
powerful corporations and select special interest groups (not to mention
their own friends and cronies) to do business in  ....

When I sat down, Jack Cunningham said that it was not true that the European
Union  was behind moves towards regional government (I had only said that it
was behind thousands of unnecessary regulations).  He then refused to allow
any further discussion of this point from the floor, although a lot of
people were anxious to speak.  Dissenters in the audience were not happy
about this suppression of any real debate, and were gradually gaining
confidence.  Perhaps this was why, soon afterwards,  Cunningham decided to
bring the proceedings to a close nearly a quarter of an hour early.

After the "debate" there was "a further opportunity for participants to
network with other leading decision-makers from around the region over
drinks".  A few of us joined forces to see if we could get a proper
discussion going, but we were cold-shouldered by the organisers and the
VIPs, who had now identified us as trouble.

Well, I suppose this travesty WAS called an "enabling debate"  -  suggesting
that the decision has already been made, and  all that remains to be done is
to prepare the ground for implementation.

Stuff "enabling debates"  -  what we need is a detailed presentation of the
arguments,  with proposer and seconder preparing their case beforehand, and
opposer and seconder, equally prepared (and experienced in public speaking) 
taking it to pieces, and suggesting alternatives;  all of this followed  by
participation from the floor, and a final vote for or against.

A gathering of a hundred or so people, most of them already clutching
first-class tickets for the gravy train to regional government, does nothing
to bring the issues before the public  -  especially when the meeting is
held in secluded university premises.  Why not a prime-time TV spot ?  After
all, television is the modern hustings.

This whole farce was organised by a research group called The Centre for
Public Policy, which was set up last year.  Presumably the European Social
Fund money from which they benefit provided the food and drinks at the
sherry reception, and also paid for the glossy brochures introducing us to
their eighteen-strong team of employees (only three of them, by the way,
men: which seems highly inappropriate in an organisation whose "key
concerns" include "equality and diversity").

I couldn't help wondering whether ordinary people would voluntarily allow
their money to be side-lined into a think tank committed (in the words of
its Director) "to the ongoing development of the public and voluntary sector
here in the North East", rather than being used to pay for practical
improvements in, say, health or education: The fact that "European" money
usually has to be supplemented by an equal sum taken directly from local
government funds, and that it is lavishly creamed off during its tortuous
journey from the pockets of British taxpayers to Brussels and back,  adds
insult to injury.

Of course, this particular think tank is no worse than all the others which
are proliferating under the EU umbrella, and which have no doubt helped to
boost the huge (50%) increase in  public sector employment since Tony Blair
came to power.  No regional assembly is likely to dissolve them.  They are
an essential tool of regional "governance", helping to manipulate public
opinion into a predetermined  "consensus", through the liberal use of
selective "research", controlled focus groups, and carefully-managed
"enabling debates" like the one described above.

I went home kicking myself for making such a mess of things.  But even if I
had spoken brilliantly,  in that environment it would have made no
difference.

This was brought home to me the next morning, when, glancing through a 
report of the "debate" in the Newcastle Journal,  I was horrified to see, at
the bottom of the page,  a small photo of myself in full spate,  looking 
like a cross between my red granny from Bethnal Green and the American bald
eagle with a funny wig on.   Not far from the picture were the words,
"Gillian Swanson said that an assembly would take power away from the
people".

Honestly,  I didn't  ...  How could it, when there's no power to take away
in the first place?  Doesn't the Journal understand the difference between
taking power away and giving it back?

But then the point of "governance" isn't to find out what people want, or
report what they actually say: it's to put a nice "democratic" front on the
high-handed procedures of people who think they know best  -  and most of
the time the press plays along.