A Watergate on Wearside?

Observations on a north-east referendum

Voters across north-east England are awaiting with moderately bated breath the outcome of the country's first regional referendum. It may also be the last, if they reject the doubtful appeal of an assembly with little power but the right to bump up council taxes. Recent polls suggest they may do just that. Two other referendums (in the north-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber) have been "postponed" indefinitely, in the face of a pronounced lack of local enthusiasm. Elsewhere, referendums have not even been broached, for fear of the raspberry they would attract. Yet token regional devolution is the government's only answer to the "English question" left hanging by its Celtic constitutional adventures. So the north-east must bump-start the system, lest resentment of a lopsided settlement begin to get out of hand in the kingdom's largest nation.

Visiting Yes campaigners to the north-east have included Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Peter Hain and John Reid, while John Prescott has spent whole days on the stump. Now, some are asking whether the government's eagerness to get the answer it wants has led it into sharp practice.

The ballot papers do not just ask if an assembly should be created: they carry an elaborate preamble. This, some feel, is calculated to mislead. The wording suggests that substantial powers would be transferred from Whitehall to the new assembly. Yet much of the power would be filched from local councils, so it would end up further away from citizens, not closer to them. According to the preamble, the assembly would control "regional economic development". The official No campaign group, North-East Says No, however, points out that central government could still force the region's development agency to focus on national priorities; it could also stop the agency from doing anything it considered disadvantageous to another region.

The unofficial North-East No group argued that a government leaflet entitled Have Your Say was also misleading. The group tried to force the publication of a correction through judicial review, but had to abandon the case when the government got a cap on costs removed, exposing the group to the risk of bankruptcy. Ministers did accept that they had misled voters about the likely cost of the local government reorganisation in County Durham. They agreed to send a correction to Durham householders, but not to voters in the rest of the north-east.

Moreover, the ballot is exclusively postal. Experiments with the same system in June this year highlighted fraud and other problems, and the Electoral Commission came out against its use in future UK-wide elections. However, there were fears that a conventional poll in the north-east would have attracted a derisory turnout.

And finally, there has been a daring and unexplained break-in at the offices of North-East No. Watergate on Wearside, with Prescott as Haldeman? Maybe not, but there are still a few dirty-tricks days left until votes are counted on 4 November.