For our very first cocktail debate, we were honoured to welcome Mr Jim Mc Mahon, British Labour and Co-operative Party politician, MP for Oldham West and Royton, who spoke of the challenges and opportunities that local governments face in the wake of Brexit. As our moderator Mr Jonathan Carr-West, Chief Executive of LGIU put it, it is difficult to ignore the elephant in the room when holding meetings in London these days. So after an expert panel discussion on sustainable financing for regions earlier that day, AER members tuned in for a passionate and open story of what is at stake for local government to prepare for the future of the United Kingdom.
Addressing his audience directly, Mr Jim Mc Mahon strongly assured AER members that regardless of Brexit, the labour party and its constituents believe that “we are stronger together and by working together we achieve more”. Of course, as AER brings together regions from within and outside the borders of the EU to act in one, unified, voice, this is essentially preaching to the choir, but it does keep thoughts of adversity from across the Channel at bay.
Mr Mc Mahon confirmed that many of the issues that may have pushed his fellow constituents to vote in favour of Brexit were not a direct result of the EU decisions, but rather failure from within the UK, such as poor housing, poor jobs, a slow economy and a more general feeling of being left behind by globalisation. So although the UK leaving the EU may well be collateral damage of internal unrest, it is the reality that politicians now have to deal with. “My job is to define what a post-Brexit England can be” stated the MP, and the backbone of this is “pushing power and control down to the people and away from self-serving politicians”. Mr Mc Mahon used the common analogy of a divorce between the UK and the EU, which he hopes will go as smoothly as possible, but adding emphasis on the post-divorce situation; “people need to see a difference after Brexit, they need to see a change, we fear the rise of an anti-politic mood otherwise.”
The other real risk is that the United Kingdom may not survive the test and Mr Mc Mahon was quite clear that he stands to defend the interests of England which may otherwise come out losing as the different countries raise the issue of their independence. “England needs a strong voice around the table in the midst of the this soul-searching about the type of UK we want to build”.
In his concluding remarks, the MP confirmed “we value our relationship with the people in Europe, we have shared values and beliefs and whether we are in or out of the EU, this will not change”
In his intervention earlier that day, Councillor David Simmonds from the Local Government Association, addressed Brexit from a finance and trade agreements perspective. The disparities that exist between different regions and countries within the EU is also true within the United Kingdom; the funding received from central government is very different one city or county to the next. Cllr Simmonds insisted on the relevance of local authorities to play a new role and build on their expertise in the area of procurement. He concluded by adding that local authorities need to maintain their involvement on EU level through networks such as AER.
AER has embraced the issue of Brexit under the more general question of what is the future for Europe. Cllr Roy Perry, Leader of Hampshire County Council, addressed the AER Bureau in October 2016 on “A post-Brexit system: How will Europe be reshuffled?” after which AER members adopted a declaration looking at three main parameters for the future of Europe; (1) vision and values, (2) patterns and institutions, (3) communicate and promote. The final text “Status quo is not an option” was adopted and serves as AER’s key position for the coming talks and discussions.