Yorkshire Party leader 'incredibly proud' as he steps down after a year
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When the history books are written about the 2019 General Election, which already feels like a lifetime ago, they will likely tell a simple story of Conservative success.
Buoyed by the unpopularity of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and with a powerful message about getting Brexit done, so the narrative goes, Boris Johnson flattened the ‘red wall’ in the North to sweep to a majority.
With Brexit the focus of so much of the campaigning and coverage in the run-up to the poll, other issues and parties struggled to grab enough of the public’s attention to make an impact.
Among them was the Yorkshire Party, who with 28 candidates stood in more than half of the region’s constituencies and had high hopes after making progress in the European elections earlier in the year.
The party, which campaigns for the devolution of powers to Yorkshire and a powerful regional assembly, increased its vote by more than 8,000 to get 29,000 overall, making them the sixth most popular party in England and 13th across the whole country.
But according to leader Chris Whitwood, who is stepping down this summer after a year in the role, the political climate made it hard for his regionalist party to break through in the way he’d hoped.
The 28-year-old said: “There was such a focus on Brexit, such a visceral dislike of both Boris and Corbyn from different sides. We found that a lot of people we spoke to said they’d vote [for the Yorkshire Party] next time, but this election I’m voting XYZ because we need to get Brexit done, or stop Boris.
“With council and European elections, people do not view those as critical and therefore are more likely to lend their vote to a smaller party.”
There is evidence for this, with the Yorkshire Party getting more than 50,000 votes in the 2019 European elections across the Yorkshire and the Humber region, more than the newly-formed national breakaway party Change UK.
But Mr Whitwood, a former primary school teacher who was born in Leeds and educated in York, criticised the apparent refusal to acknowledge regional political parties such as his amongst the London media.
And he compared the Women’s Equality Party who, based in London, and via high profile backing and funding, were able to gain far more coverage, despite only fielding three candidates.
He said: “Problems with exposure are symptomatic of the North-South divide, which is why our party exists. If we were to set up a political party in London and stand 28 candidates across London, we’d be in the headlines all the time.”
Problems with exposure have also occurred within Yorkshire itself. Last November, the party’s Sheffield Central candidate Jack Carrington was denied a chair to a hustings at St Mark’s Church in Broomhill, Sheffield.
After being told the decision was down to previous electoral results, a Yorkshire Party representative said the move was “an affront to democracy”.
Mr Whitwood also feels the first-past-the-post voting system used in General Elections holds his party back due to its lack of proportionality.
“I think it’s a horrendous system, not only in terms of representation but the nature of politics it creates,” he says. “The binary idea of first order elections - us against the rest, Labour vs Tories, if you’re not with us you’re against us.
“It’s always going to be a challenge because the two main parties have a vested interest, it inflates the number of seats they get.”
Mr Whitwood, who was elected deputy leader of the Yorkshire Party in 2016, stepped up to the top role last March to replace Stewart Arnold.
Just a year into the job he has announced he will be stepping down, with open nominations for his successor in early May and a new leader likely to be announced in June.
“It’s a voluntary position but it takes up a lot of time,” he said, explaining his position. “I feel I’ve helped the party grow.
“I’ll still be involved after standing down, but I’m stepping down from the executive as I need a bit of a break. It would be unfair on whoever took over to have me still as backseat leader.”
“I may still run for councils in the future but I’m happy to take a backseat role.”
The idea of a regional assembly in Yorkshire is still very much the headline of the party’s manifesto, but Mr Whitwood says his party is also interested in the historic underfunding of education and transport.
In 2004, a devolution referendum took place in the North East, a brainchild of the then-Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
Although the votes against devolution heavily outweighed those for, Mr Whitwood argued lessons can be learnt from the process.
“The regional assembly promised was limited in terms of its powers,” he says.
“It should be about taking powers in Westminster and moving them closer to where people live.”
Reflecting on the future, he admits that more work is needed to explain what the party stands for and its policies, adding: “We thought people would know about us, but there is a significant number of people who haven’t heard of us.”
But he describes his time in the party with positivity, especially its progress since starting in 2014.
He said: “I’m incredibly proud with not only what I’ve achieved, but what we’ve all achieved. To have built a political party, to have a vision and principles behind it, for that to bring together all these different threads that we’ve talked about over the last six years, I’m very proud.
“The fact that the Yorkshire Party not only has survived six years but has continued to grow says there’s something in what we are saying, something that resonates with people.
“We’re living in a world where smaller parties can make a huge difference. This is why I’m hopeful for the next five years and thankful for this period of stability we have with this next government. It will allow us to grow but grow at a good rate.”