Stewart Arnold’s 2018 Conference speech

Speech by Stewart Arnold, Leader of the Yorkshire Party,

Annual Conference, Hull, October 13, 2018

It’s fitting that we should be meeting in Hull. The city has a history of campaigning success. Local MP William Wilberforce led the campaign to end the slave trade. It was the headscarf heroes who drove the improvements to safety on Hull’s trawlers in the 1970s. And it is a city that in so many areas -economic, social and democratic – would benefit from devolution.

I want to give my thanks to Chris and his team for organising this conference. It will be our largest in the Party’s history. Also, I want to welcome our friends from our sister parties in the European Free Alliance.

Being leader of the Yorkshire Party means I get to travel the length and breadth of this great county. I can’t say it’s anything other than great fun but I totally refute any claim that in reality it’s just one extended pub crawl. Although I have to say I have found some very decent pubs on my journeys.

Wherever I go and whoever I speak to there are two things that come up time and time again: a sense of powerlessness plus a feeling of insecurity. And the two things are linked.

I’ve been to city, town and village. Every community has its own issues, but what feels constant to me is the sense of powerlessness among those fighting for change.

It’s the people of Leeds wanting a modern efficient transport system for the city; it’s rural communities desperate to get fast internet connection; it’s the people in Ryedale opposing fracking; it’s people in Hull wanting investment in infrastructure not least the electrification of the railway to the west; it’s the people of Bradford wanting the opportunity to come out of the shadow of Leeds and once again be a thriving economic city in its own right.

Whatever the local problem, communities are angry and frustrated because they lack the power to put things right.

A Withernsea businessman I spoke to wanted to put something back into the town which had given him a living so got himself elected to the town council but found at every turn obstruction and disinterest. He was not alone.

Everywhere I went, in effect what people wanted, was to take back control.

So how is that going to happen?

Well I listened to Jeremy Corbyn’s conference speech and although there was some good stuff in there, there is little suggestion that empowering communities is anywhere near the top of his agenda.

Last year’s election manifesto claimed Labour “is the party of devolution”, but was preciously short on detail. Is Labour really going to win power, just to give it away? Of course not.

The Conservatives? Well as the party who understood the problem of having a UK economy out of kilter – the so called North-South divide – they actually embraced the devolution agenda. Not the sort of devolution we would want of course. Limited in scope but George Osborne to his credit got it. But recently progress has stalled.

It’s hard to believe now that we can prise any powers away with Theresa May’s cold, dead fingers on the levers. Don’t believe Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg will be any different.

Some argue it’s all about Brexit and, of course, Brexit consumes all political thinking at the moment. But here’s the irony. If, as I do, you think that the Brexit vote in Yorkshire was a cry for help from the people tired of economic decline, recession, austerity, a lack of investment in schools and infrastructure, then somebody, somewhere in London might start to address this.

But no, this cry for help is being ignored. Yorkshire is being totally ignored. We have no voice at the table planning a better future for Yorkshire and its people.

If we really want to address the root causes of why so many people in the county feel disempowered and unrepresented then we need to be empowering people and communities. We need to give them the ability to set their own priorities, spend their money and build a better future.  In short they need the Yorkshire Party.

Then there’s the insecurity people are feeling.

At the university in the summer I looked around at the latest cohort of graduates enjoying the sunshine with family and friends eager to kick on with their lives. I wondered what sort of future in work they faced.

It made me think about my own life.

My grandfather left school and got an apprenticeship at the largest local employer – the Royal Ordnance factory at Woolwich – the Woolwich Arsenal. He worked there his entire life until retiring to the South Coast.

My father also did his apprenticeship at the Woolwich Arsenal and although he didn’t stay there long he nevertheless remained a mechanical engineer all his working life.

I didn’t do my apprenticeship at the Woolwich Arsenal not least because it was already running down in the 1980s. In fact it is now a housing estate. My world of work has been both in the private sector and public sector, teaching, marketing consumer products across Europe, running my own business and I’ve even turned my hand as a shepherd.  

The notion of jobs being from cradle to grave at a single employer of course is long gone. Working lives now have to undergo endless peaks, troughs and reinventions. We have to recognise that during our lifetime we might not just work for several different organisations or companies but do several different jobs or trades.

We have to make sure that people can be retrained, reskilled and re-educated in a variety of ways to take up the different opportunities they might be faced with.

That’s why I’m delighted that crating a culture of lifelong learning is such an important part of our education policy which we’ll be discussing later. I want to thank Chris Gauton and his team for bringing that together so well.

It’s not just fear about the future of work which creates this insecurity. As the writer John Harris has said: ‘our lives are surely more scrambled and complicated than they have ever been’. Modernity is a muddle: it’s a world of multiple user accounts, passwords, contracts for energy providers, smartphones, tablets and Wi-Fi.

There’s a sort of madness to modern living, a generalised complexity to our lives. As Harris says, this applies to those who think of themselves as relatively successful, let alone to people of those communities still struggling to come to terms with the economic hit they took a generation ago.

It’s not unique to Yorkshire. All across the world people are in that same position. In those circumstances it’s not surprising people seek out those things which give them a sense of stability: family, friends and community. And in electoral terms it’s expressed in a vote for Trump and a vote for Brexit.

But it’s also expressed in support for those parties which are of the community. Whether it’s Catalonia, Corsica, or Scotland, the parties that do well are those that best understand the hopes and fears of those communities.

So it’s up to us to offer an alternative that captures the sense of grievance but at the same time directs towards the democratic upsurge in a new kind of politics, offering hope and optimism.

Our message is getting support. May’s elections showed that many like what we have to say.

In the Sheffield City Mayoral election the party achieved its best result ever in terms of votes cast, coming fourth overall but third in Doncaster, Barnsley and Rotherham. And in Rotherham just a few hundred votes from beating the Conservative candidate. So my special thanks to Mick Bower who as our candidate flew the flag for us so brilliantly in that election.

We already had great results in the local elections on the same day in Castleford, Barnsley, Leeds and many other places besides. Also Doncaster in a subsequent by-election.

A special mention must go to Bob Buxton taking moving from 70 votes in 2015 to over 1,530 votes three years later.

Last year, I was delighted to be seen to be the 6th largest party in Yorkshire. Just a year on I would argue we are the 3rd largest across much of the county.

So I know there is an appetite for our message.

The party has never been in better shape. We have more members, supporters and more followers on our so all media than at any time in our history. We have our first councillors one of whom you’ve met already of course.

My challenge is to build on this and to advance the party even further. So more members, more supporters, more money and I want to see a record number of candidates in next year’s local elections. So if you haven’t signed up already do so today.

Back in January, I attended a debate in the House of Commons which the on order paper said quite simple ‘Yorkshire Devolution’. The main mover in the debate was Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis. I listened to his speech. It was good. That good we could have written it for him.

Later in the summer, on Yorkshire Day in fact, council leaders and MPs from all parties, along with representatives of business, trade unions, civic society, and ourselves met at the invitation of the Archbishop of York to launch a One Yorkshire Devolution campaign.

Both things – the Westminster debate and the coming together of the One Yorkshire campaign – would have been unimaginable just a couple of years ago.

In fact, I was at a meeting of the One Yorkshire campaign yesterday in York. The economic case is well made; much of what they consider to be a road map are things we’ve been saying for some time. In fact, one council leader present thought it was revelatory when setting out his case for devolution announcing to us all that ‘Yorkshire has a population the same size as Scotland and an economy twice the size of Wales and the powers of neither. Something has to change’. In effect, the opening paragraph from our very first leaflet from 2014!

So much of what the One Yorkshire campaign says is substance we can get fully behind. However they want a Mayor. We don’t.

We want a directly elected, accountable assembly (via fair votes) for the whole of Yorkshire. We believe such a body would properly reflect the political and geographic diversity in a modern Yorkshire.

Nevertheless, I feel we can give qualified support to the One Yorkshire Campaign. After all, the Yorkshire Party has always supported the idea of a One Yorkshire devolution deal. We believe this is the way to create a prosperous region of five million people within the United Kingdom.

The prospect of an elected Mayor responsible to a cabinet of Yorkshire’s local council leaders as proposed by this campaign is not an end but a beginning – a step towards the real inclusive devolution we want.

So I’ve said we are prepared to bring our campaigning energy in order to strengthen the case for a One Yorkshire devolution settlement. Yorkshire must take much more responsibility for its own affairs – these are the first steps on that journey.

As someone said: We may disagree on what sort of house to build, but we agree we need bricks.

Devolution to Yorkshire is coming. Everything we do as a party, putting out leaflets, high street stalls for our Yorkshire Pledge, writing letters, carrying out online petitions, putting up candidates, winning elections, moves that closer.

We still have Government ministers (usually from Manchester curiously) telling us what we want but I think the sheer force of our argument will turn them. Just as we have carried the argument over the past years.

As well as this campaign we need to be painting a picture of how devolution might look: the Yorkshire Party’s vision of a stronger Yorkshire in a fairer United Kingdom.

So this means an emphasis on education and the Yorkshire Education Challenge as the tool to raise educational attainment levels in Yorkshire’s schools.

We want an energy policy for Yorkshire that has at its core an ambitious target of renewable energy use and innovative programme of low-carbon technology use.

As part of that we see no role for fracking and we restate our opposition to the extraction of shale gas across Yorkshire.

We want to see a commitment to increase spending on renewable energy. Government investment on green energy has been slashed in the last few years. With proper investment, Yorkshire can be a major contributor to green technologies.

We will fund an establish research into new innovations with universities in Yorkshire. Why for example is it so impossible to use the tidal power generated in the Humber estuary? Some local companies can do this. Can this be done on a larger scale? We need to know.

And speaking of the Humber estuary, one of the things that devolution to Yorkshire could bring is an end to the Humber Bridge tolls.

There are no toll roads or bridges in Scotland. The bridge tolls at the Severn crossing to Wales will be abolished in December. It’s no coincidence that both Scotland and Wales have devolution. They recognise the importance to their economies of traffic moving freely without what, are in effect, extra taxes.

This is the sort of thing you can do with devolved Government. In fact you can do a lot with devolution. The possibilities are exciting. It’s what still drives me after four years after setting up the party. And even longer since I chaired the Campaign for Yorkshire back when Prescott teased us with the idea of regional assemblies.

Our goal is simple: a stronger Yorkshire in a fairer United Kingdom. And indeed a fairer Yorkshire.

A fairer Yorkshire for all those born here and for all those who have chosen to make their home here, and for the generations to come.

That’s why we believe in One Yorkshire. So work for this.

That better future for Yorkshire and its people is close.

Together we can make it happen.

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