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Last Updated: Monday, 1 November, 2004, 13:02 GMT
Backing the ref?
FEATURE
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News politics reporter

John Elliott in front of the No Campaign's inflatable white elephant
No Campaign's John Elliott in front of the inflatable white elephant
We are on the 0930 train out of Middlesbrough and the town's mayor, Ray Mallon, is looking forward to a good scrap.

The man formerly known as Robocop received an e-mail last night challenging him to come to Sunderland for a frank exchange of views on the subject of regional assemblies.

The e-mail's sender - Neil Herron - has been running an energetic, if unofficial, campaign against a North East assembly for the past two and half years.

And he wants to put Mr Mallon, a recent recruit to the Yes campaign, right on a few points.

The former police chief is clearly impressed with his adversary's no-nonsense style.

"He sounds like a good lad," he says with a grin.

Raw deal

The North East is the first English region to be asked if it wants to replace its county councils with a single, elected assembly.

The way it votes on Thursday, in an all-postal ballot, is likely to determine whether two other northern regions - Yorkshire and Humber and the North West are given a similar opportunity.

Paul Gascoigne, and Peter Beardsley, ex-Newcastle United footballers
Ex-footballers Gascoigne and Beardsley say they'll vote Yes

With its remoteness from London and its strong sense of identity, it has always been seen as the region most likely to opt for some form of self-government.

Despite numbering Tony Blair, Alan Milburn and until recently Peter Mandelson, among its MPs, many North Easterners feel they get a raw deal from Westminster.

The area suffered heavy job losses under Margaret Thatcher, and although it has started to regain its self-confidence in recent years, the idea that "we could run things better ourselves" still has powerful currency.

Little wonder, perhaps, that the campaign for a yes vote began with a healthy lead in the polls.

Celebrity backing

Initially, the Yes campaign's tactic was to capitalise on regional pride, recruiting local celebrities such as Sting, Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne, Peter Beardsley and Metro centre and Newcastle United tycoon Sir John Hall to back its cause.

A string of cabinet ministers also made the journey north, while Tony Blair shared a platform with Charles Kennedy to demonstrate cross-party support for a yes vote.

But that was before the most recent poll, in the Northern Echo, put the No campaign ahead and it was forced to change tactics.

Instead of focusing on its upbeat campaign slogan - "Be positive, be proud" - it has begun attacking the No campaign as "southerners" and "Tories".

Two-bit Conservatives

The day before his pilgrimage to Sunderland, Mr Mallon staged a noisy confrontation with the official North East Says No (NESNO), outside its Durham City HQ.

He accused NESNO of being "two-bit Conservatives" and of being "dishonourable" by spreading lies about the assembly.

Over the weekend, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott joined in, saying: "The London Tories are desperate for a "No" vote because they want to gag the people of the North East and maintain the North-South divide."

Mr Prescott, who, as the creator of the scheme has more to lose than most from a no vote, says the contest is too close to call.

Vote Yes chairman John Tomaney says the decision to indulge in negative campaigning is a response to the "relentless negativity" of the No campaign.

NESNO was set up by eurosceptic local businessman John Elliott, with the backing of the Conservatives and UKIP.

Eyecatching stunts

But the politicians have been careful to remain in the background.

Taking its cue from the anti-euro No Campaign, with which it shares key personnel, it has attempted to tap into the current mood of cynicism about politicians and politics in general.

John Prescott looks on as Gordon Brown speaks
Politicians such as John Prescott and Gordon Brown back an assembly

Its slogan - "Politicians talk, we pay" - neatly sums up its key objections to the idea of a regional assembly.

It has staged a series of eyecatching stunts to get its point across - such as the deployment of a large, inflatable white elephant and the symbolic burning of a million "50 notes" to show how much an assembly will allegedly cost.

It also hired a mechanical digger to start work on an assembly building, claiming that despite assurances to the contrary the politicians will not be able to resist building themselves an expensive, shiny new home.

The Yes team countered with a man in a rat suit, "rats" apparently standing for "rather arrogant Tory southerners".

Tough sell

James Frayne - targeted by Vote Yes as an "arrogant Tory spin doctor from London" who never comes out during daylight hours - affects bewilderment at his opponents' smear tactics.

"I don't really think they have hit the target with that. No one cares who I am," he says.

In fact, Mr Frayne is on secondment from New Frontiers, a right wing think tank headed by Dominic Cummings, former strategy adviser to Iain Duncan Smith and ex-head of the anti-euro No Campaign.

The problem the Yes campaign have, he argues, is the North East assembly bill itself, which, he claims, contains no significant new powers.

Even its most vocal proponents admit it is a tough sell.

"All the powers are already there, what the government wants is more unified co-ordination," says Mr Mallon, attempting to explain what it means to reporters.

He later adds: "On balance, I think it will be good for the North East.

"There are some things that excite you more than others. At the end of the day, regional government excites me more than it doesn't. At least I am supporting it."

Football talk

He claims he has been given assurances by "senior" Conservative and Labour figures that they will put up "quality" candidates for election to the assembly, in the event of a yes vote.

"What we need is 25 quality politicians. What we can not have is the usual suspects re-electing themselves," he says.

Officially, Mr Mallon is touring the North East by rail to highlight the possible benefits of an assembly to transport policy - and to shift the campaign back on to the issues.

But as his train pulls into the platform at Sunderland, Mr Herron is waiting for him with members of his campaign team and a gaggle of press photographers.

The promised showdown is a jovial affair.

The two men bond instantly over their shared love of Sunderland football club and have a brief, but impassioned debate about the assembly.

"For Sunderland people, it is a black and white issue," says Mr Herron, referring to the colours of Newcastle's strip.

Sir John Hall's talk of a "Geordie Parliament" is unlikely to win any votes in these parts, he argues.

And despite Newcastle's status as the region's capital, Sunderland has the larger population.




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