Why the North, why now, and what’s new? Parts I and II

Part I: For England’s sake, the time has come for Northern England to find its ‘inner powerhouse’

In the wake of the general election, Englishness as a national identity is being articulated in an increasingly aggressive manner.  When all the dust has settled, we may in future come to see this as the key legacy of the 2015 general election – or even of the 2008 financial meltdown that continues to shape politics in the UK.  In this post (the first in a series of two) I argue that this trend reinforces the importance of Northern England to progressive politics.

The assertion of English nationhood is, in part, a knee-jerk response to the rise of Scottish nationalism. At the same time, the Scottish National Party’s remarkable success since 2011 can be understood as a reaction to the perceived England-first approach of the Conservative-led coalition government.

Yet there remains no settled consensus on what Englishness (or even England itself) is: as Michael Kenny argues, it has often been asserted in the past to support progressive causes.  The St. George’s Cross re-entered the mainstream public realm only fairly recently, and the Conservative Party (or Conservative and Unionist Party, to give the party its full title), although a longstanding bastion of Englishness as a cultural form, is a relative latecomer to the notion of England as a political entity.

As such, the meanings and political implications of Englishness are up for grabs.  I agree with those on the right of the Labour Party arguing that, if the party is to have any future as a governing party, it must embrace English identity.  But John Denham’s idea for an English Labour Party strikes the wrong tone entirely – separating organisation and leadership in England from the UK-wide party would simply reinforce the London-centric tendency that has alienated Labour from its grassroots.

It would be a mistake for Labour simply to accommodate the ascendant English identity currently being authored by David Cameron and Nigel Farage.  To recover, it must wrestle Englishness from England’s South-East corner – where the right alone, for the most part, sets the terms of political debate – and refashion it in the image of the North of England. The Conservatives’ England-first approach is, in practice, really about putting London’s financial services sector first.

It is tempting to sympathise with those in Northern England who dream about allying with Scotland to secure a progressive future.  But the Scottish economy is actually doing rather well out of the UK government’s London-centred agenda, due to the strength of financial services in Edinburgh.  More profoundly, progressive forces have to recognise that ‘exit‘ from the union is not a realistic option for the North – ‘voice’ is the only way forward.  Clearly, English identity is already starting to gain a political foothold in the North, in the form of UKIP’s populist appeal to former British National Party supporters and some Labour supporters worried about immigration.

Clearly, Labour cannot govern based on a (depleted) heartlands strategy alone.  But equally it cannot function as a mass party at all without a strong geographical base.  With Scotland lost for a generation, the North is pretty much all Labour has left.

Complacency about Labour’s strength in the North is not therefore an option.  Despite the rise of UKIP in the North, and the exclusion of most of the North from the economic recovery, the Conservatives – in marked contrast to popular perceptions – did remarkably well in the North at the election.  A more detailed analysis of the party’s performance in Northern England at the 2015 general election is available in the latest SPERI British Political Economy Brief, published today.

Labour did very well in many of London’s less affluent constituencies; understandably, the party will want to celebrate this success.  It also has to recognise, however, the paradox that London’s unique privilege within the UK brings with it a toxic mix of racial and socio-economic inequalities, undermining the Conservatives’ appeal in large parts of the capital.  But it is its very peculiarity among English cities that means London cannot be the geographical base of a nationwide Labour revival.

The North has unique characteristics too, but the experience of post-industrial decay most evident in the North is one that resonates to a greater or lesser extent in many other regions of the UK, including large parts of Scotland and Wales.

The great cities of Northern England have at crucial times in British history played an enormous role in the country’s economic development.  In return, many Northern enclaves have become very affluent.  By contrast, the majority of the North has always had to fight for its fair share of national prosperity.  It is this distinctive arrangement – economically central but politically peripheral – which has always driven Northern politics and framed many of the formal and informal political institutions that have formed here.

It is not by accident, therefore, that the TUC was born of Northern England.  So was The Guardian. Both of these have migrated south, but must now come home.  And these are only the most well-known icons of the North’s political tapestry, a dense associational life which has in recent years lost its progressive hue.  Crucially, these organisations never sought to speak only to the North, or even for the North, but rather from the North, about conditions common to many parts of the country (and indeed the world) in a capitalist global economy.

My contention, then, is that the opening-up of political space around English identity offers the North a chance to reassert the universality of the Northern experience – shedding the sense of ‘otherness’ that dominates depictions of Northern England within a political, media and business elite which takes its cue almost exclusively from London and the home counties.  Yet the enormous Northern tribe no longer identifies as readily with Labour as it once did, and the spectre of an ugly version of nationalism looms large.  As a matter of urgency, Labour needs to start looking like the society it wants to create.

In part two of these linked posts, I will look at George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda.  But, in the meantime, the conclusion of this first instalment is clear: the North needs to rediscover its inner powerhouse.

Part II: Osborne’s plans spell ‘devo-danger’ for Labour in Northern England

Devo-Manc, and its equivalents in the other regions of Northern England that will surely follow, is being sold as a key element in the creation of George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’.  In the first of these posts, I argued that Labour’s future might depend on rekindling Northern England’s ‘inner powerhouse’.  Here, I focus on how and why the Conservative government has taken the initiative in the English devolution agenda, and the danger this poses to the left.

The most obvious – but strangely under-appreciated – point is that devolving planning, transport and health powers, and their (depleted) budgets, will not lead to a ‘balanced’ economy in geographical terms.  This does not necessarily mean that decentralisation in these forms should not happen, but to assume this will offer a panacea for the North/South divide seriously misdiagnoses the nature of the divide.  Northern and Southern England are unequal as a result of the nature of the finance-centred developmental model that prevails in the UK and indeed is entrenched in virtually all aspects of economic policy and practice.

This model can only be meaningfully altered at the national level, or even the global level.  For two relatively short periods of time (at the height of the British Empire, and again immediately after the Second World War), historical circumstances allowed the model also to enable large parts of the North of England to prosper in tandem with the South-East (albeit to a lesser extent).

But these circumstances are no longer evident.  The Conservatives are not prepared to make the kind of structural changes to the UK economy that would genuinely redress North/South imbalances.  New Labour’s response to this dilemma was to grow the public sector in the North, colluding with a hamstrung trade union movement to paper over the cracks.

This is not an option for the Conservatives, thanks both to the perception that ‘there is no money left‘ and their in-built ideological bias against the state.  Instead, they are seeking to hand some policy-making powers to Northern regions, creating the impression that the North has its destiny in its own hands, while retaining all the powers that really matter to our economy (such as monetary policy, industrial policy, business regulation, employment law, trade rules) at the centre and holding them, increasingly, in technocratic institutions shielded from parliamentary oversight.

In economic terms, the most important task for city-regions will be to create an environment as hospitable to private enterprise as possible.  The ultimate end-game for the Conservatives seems to be tax devolution, which – as Daniel Bailey argues – will create a ‘race to the bottom’ as regions compete to tax firms and wealthy individuals less, undermining public services in the process as revenues decline.  (This logic, by the way, is precisely why the SNP is increasingly lukewarm on the prospect of fiscal autonomy in Scotland, although it does not dare admit it.)

Such a devolution of tax would also further undermine the legitimacy of the (now minimally) redistributive welfare state.  The right-wing agenda to stop London’s riches being redistributed northwards is based on the falsehood that London creates its own wealth, rather than continuing to rent-seek on an epic scale and thereby reaping the benefits of a privilege established during the UK’s long-gone industrial and imperial periods.

The link between the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda and economic balance sets a dangerous trap for progressives: this is a fundamentally conservative and paradoxically pro-London strategy.  The inevitable result is that multinational corporations will locate low-value activities in low-tax jurisdictions in the North – and Scotland – while continuing to utilise London’s capital markets and all the other financial, legal and business services that are concentrated in the capital.

It’s also a hugely undemocratic agenda.  Osborne is imposing a directly elected mayor on Greater Manchester (despite the rejection of this model by voters in a 2012 referendum): he knows that Labour is well-entrenched in local government in the North and that Northern councils have created a great deal of noise about the uneven impact of austerity at the local level.  By imposing so-called ‘metro mayors’, he disrupts the institutionalisation of Labour power, offering just enough by way of carrot to existing leaders to get them to play along.  It will then be much easier to make deals with a handful of mayors, rather than dozens of council leaders.

Osborne also knows there is a fair chance the Conservatives will win some of these new offices, because the logic of the powers to be given to ‘metro mayors’ will lend itself to a pro-competition, Conservative narrative.  It is, after all, what happened, eventually, in left-leaning London.  He is essentially gambling that an elitist Labour leadership will not be able to hold the party together (and, at the moment, Labour’s right is dancing to Osborne’s tune), creating a degree of disarray within the party at the local level and handing the electoral initiative to the Conservatives.

The question, then, is this: despite these problems, should the left in the North of England grasp the opportunity of these devolved powers, even under a flawed ‘metro mayor’ model?  In my view, the dark cloud does have a silver lining.  Labour needs to rebuild from the bottom if it is to have any hope of again becoming credible at the top.  It needs therefore to start this process by building outwards and upwards from the Northern English communities which are most disconnected from the UK’s finance-centred economy.  Labour can seek to govern through ‘metro mayors’, for sure, but, more importantly, it should aim to develop this model into a platform from which to advocate a genuine transformation and proper ‘rebalancing’ of the country’s whole political economy.

Image: Salim Virji