Paul Salveson asks: Is London the problem?

North and South: bury our differences and build a progressive alliance for social justice and a Federal Britain

It’s almost de rigeur among Northern regionalists to see ‘London’ as the problem – our great enemy, oppressor and cause of all our woes. Let’s be honest: this attitude is childish and immature. Scotland long since moved on from this victim culture and it’s time we in the North did as well. The EU Referendum shows that people living in London voted massively for remaining in the EU – for a range of reasons but not least having an open, tolerant attitude towards minorities. A few weeks earlier London elected a Muslim mayor. Meanwhile, the North largely voted for Brexit, apart from some of the cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle (just). People in run-down, marginalised Northern towns voted heavily for ‘leave’, often citing immigration, but also out of a less definable sense of being ignored and marginalised. It was places that had some degree of self-confidence – above all in Scotland, but also in parts of the North of Ireland, parts of Wales and places like Manchester and Liverpool who were ‘remainers’. And of course, London.
So in what ways is ‘London’ the problem for us plain Northern folk? We should be clear: it isn’t the people; many of whom are living in dire poverty and appalling housing conditions. It’s structural. London is the seat of political and economic power in the UK. It’s where the decisions are made that affect the North, for better or worse – and mostly for the worse. London gets a hugely disproportionate slice of government investment; and it takes thousands of our most talented young people each year who can’t find the right jobs up here.
We don’t have a devolved government, such as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have, which can offer us some protection and address some of the pressing economic issues facing the Northern regions. We’re getting third-rate devolution, with elected mayors who – unlike Greater London – won’t be scrutinised by an elected regional body. They’ll spend much of their time doing backroom deals with the mostly Labour council leaders in places like Greater Manchester and Merseyside. If anything it will lead to more political alienation, not less.

 

Stop blaming someone else

To an extent, the North has itself to blame for the state of its towns and cities – the Brexitlands of places like Sunderland, Rotherham, Middlesbrough, Workington, Bolton, Dewsbury and Wakefield. We have faithfully supported the Labour establishment which has only seldom had the vision and ability to turn round the economic fortunes of these de-industrialised communities which elected them. There are some good examples, not least Manchester. But by and large the record of Labour in power, in its so-called Northern ‘heartlands’, is dismal. Of course it’s easy to blame central government, especially when the Tories are in power. But there’s been a massive lack of talent within Labour authorities, typified by a narrow tribalism and inability to work with anyone outside ‘the tribe’. Having been a Labour councillor in one of those Northern authorities, I’m speaking form experience – but not from bitterness. For all its faults, Labour remains the main vehicle for change in the North, but it is not capable of doing it on its own any more.

 

Do we need a ‘Northern Labour’?

A few days ago I had an interesting chat with a Labour MP for a London constituency. He was very concerned that the Labour Party is going to split; not in two, but in three – with so-called traditional, socially conservative ‘Northern Labour’ being one third, London another and the centre-left mix across the rest of England and Wales being the third. Of course nobody talks about Scotland now, it has been consigned to the ranks of the ‘beyond’. The SNP has benefited from Labour’s political arrogance, London-centralism and laziness and there’s no sign of a revival in Labour’s fortunes for the foreseeable future. In Wales, where I live for part of my time, Labour seems to have little in the way of vision, facing the prospect of being squeezed by Plaid and UKIP. Apart from UKIP, Labour has little in the way of a viable opposition in the North. And we have suffered because of that. The North needs its own equivalent of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein. Don’t hold your breath; but maybe there is a way. How about ‘Northern Labour’ as a modern, progressive and community/place-centred radical party?

north v south

It’s interesting that this intelligent London MP saw ‘The North’ as pretty much an undifferentiated mass, represented by traditional Labour MPs who were socially conservative, right of centre in Labour terms, closely linked to the unions – and mostly white men. It isn’t entirely accurate of course. A growing number of Northern Labour MPs are women, many coming from Northern working class backgrounds but hardly ‘traditional’ in their outlook. Jo Cox was one of the most outstanding but she wasn’t unique. Many are centre-left and will form part of the 172 who voted for the no-confidence vote against Corbyn; by no stretch of the imagination can they be called ‘Blairities’, still less the insulting ‘Red Tory’ tag. Yet within the constituencies, my impression is that most active members support Corbyn and making them at odds with their MP. How Labour resolves this issue is anyone’s guess but there are some things that people in the Labour Party, as well as the wider ‘left’ need to address – unless we start to work together now, in the short term, to build the sort of ‘progressive alliance’ that the Greens have suggested, all we can look forward to is a long period of Tory government, moving us further and further to the right. For the longer term, a possible solution is an autonomous ‘Northern Labour’ which is part of a new federal arrangement for Labour which mirrors (radical, democratic) devolution across Britain.

 

Labour’s long-term survival will depend on radical decentralisation

People who are calling for Labour to become, once again, ‘the voice of Britain’ are rapidly running out of steam. It is going to be less and less the case that any single party can ‘speak for Britain’ because Britain is becoming so fragmented. This shouldn’t be something to be afraid of – we should embrace a more diverse Britain and that should be reflected in both our devolved governments and in our political parties and many other institutions. The idea of a single, centralised Labour Party with its headquarters in London telling its under-resourced regional offices what to do (remember the jibe from Johanna Lamont about Scottish Labour being a ‘branch office’?) isn’t sustainable. If Labour wants to rebuild its appeal across England, Wales and Scotland it needs to radically decentralise with autonomous parties, making their own policy on most issues, in Scotland, Wales, the North, London, Midlands, South-West and East of England. The decentralised elements can come together for conferences and cultural events which would be more about sharing and developing ideas, not setting policy which is handed down on tablets of stone to ‘the provinces’.
I’m well aware this will probably never happen (but I’d re-join if it did and I suspect many others would too!) but the alternative is continued decline of a party that has made itself irrelevant, having become unable to respond to the new reality of Britain, which doesn’t have coal mines and cotton mills with mass trades unions – and is no longer willing to be dictated to by a central government, or party apparatus, based in London.

 

But for the time being…let’s build a progressive alliance

So what’s all this got to do with ‘The North and London’ here and now? Well just this – London and much of the North,Midlands and indeed Wales, is not inherently right-wing or socially ‘conservative’ in its outlook, and many who voted for ‘leave’ will probably vote Labour (and Plaid in Wales) at local and national elections. But that support can’t be guaranteed and there’s no doubt that UKIP will be hoping to capitalise on the Brexit result to strengthen its support in local elections and whenever a General Election happens. Equally, Labour’s share of the vote is declining historically, from its high in 1945. My constituency in Yorkshire, which elected a radical socialist in 1907, is now represented by a Conservative MP, who was re-elected last year after winning the seat from Labour in 2010. There’s a strong Liberal Democrat vote in parts of the constituency and the Greens get a respectable following, with smaller progressive parties – Yorkshire First, which I stood for in 2015 – getting just under 600 votes.
A progressive alliance candidate for my constituency – Colne Valley – would easily beat the Tories and UKIP. It would require a grown-up approach by all the progressive parties, possibly using an open hustings selection, as part of a wider, national, ‘Progressive Alliance’ based on a clear, simple platform of key demands – voting reform and democratic regional devolution, protection of the NHS, a huge programme of affordable house building and major investment in marginalised towns. The last point is key. Abandoning Trident replacement would enable us to invest billions into the fabric of our failing towns and cities and their industries and centres of learning (and personally, I’d scrap HS2 as well for similar reasons).
The North and London need to make common cause. In the North, we are not all social conservatives, any more than London is entirely populated by metropolitan liberals. We have more that unites us than what divides us. We need a Labour Party in the North that can respond to a growing feeling amongst supporters that unless the progressive forces start working together, we’ve had it. The current state of our towns and cities like Sunderland, Wigan, Bradford, Barnsley and the like will deteriorate even further with people turning to the far right for easy solutions and scapegoats.
None of this is to ignore the major towns and cities of the East and West Midlands, with a great tradition of progressive local government stretching back to Joe Chamberlain. They too need to make common cause with their friends in the North, and in London. The Tory ‘home counties’ – regardless of how they voted in in the Referendum – will carry on doing very nicely, largely ignorant (with honourable exceptions) of the cataclysmic decline of Northern towns and cities. To an extent, they don’t count. A progressive alliance based on London, The North, Midlands, Wales and Scotland will have all the support it needs to elect a non-Tory government. If Corbyn could champion such an initiative, he will get my vote. Will he, and his comrades, have the maturity to put narrow self-interest aside and recognise that without allies we’re all doomed?
But we need to look beyond short-term political expediency, even if it is a principled expediency. The UK is falling apart and it will never be the same again. The choice is between a narrow, intolerant ‘Little England’ (dragging along an increasingly reluctant Wales and hostile to Scotland and Ireland) or a progressive Federal Britain with a resurgent Scotland and Wales, Ireland (north and south) working as equals with London, Cornwall and the English regions. We must agree a new settlement which re-balances these isles in a way that ensures each flourishes in a mutually-supportive federation, which isn’t afraid of playing an active part in the world beyond our shores – which must include Europe, but go further. Progressive politics in Britain has much to learn from neighbourhood-based community politics in the USA, but also in Africa, south America and Kurdistan (amongst many other places).
And we in the North can learn a lot from London – its diversity, its culture, its active citizenry. Getting political and economic power out of the capital isn’t about maintaining a lingering, immature hostility to ‘anything coming from London’. Neither does it mean the North has to cow-tow to all things London. Our southern friends can learn from our sense of place and community, our solidarity, neighbourliness and strong co-operative traditions. We need to start a process of reconciliation between North and South. We need to drop our inverted snobbery towards London; London needs to accept we aren’t all closet UKIP-inclined social conservatives who beat our wives every Saturday night.
There are some very practical things we can do, like talking to each other, organising joint events, inviting people and organisations from London to seminars, events and festivals a in the North and vice-versa. Organisations which cut across party loyalties, like Compass and the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, have an important role to play here. I’ve spent a lifetime going to ‘national’ events which are nearly all in London. Funny that big UK-wide events in places like Manchester or Leeds are regarded as somehow – almost by definition – as ‘regional’. Political organisations should drop their habit of organising all their ‘important’ events in London and get out to places like Sunderland, Bolton and Workington – and Swansea Motherwell! It’ll do them good. The embryonic ‘Progressive Alliance’ has great potential. But if it’s just concocted in Westminster and the cafes and bars of North London it won’t work. It’s time to get out a bit more and really embrace the diversity and vitality of Britain, before it’s too late.

 

Paul Salveson, Hannah Mitchell Foundation (in a personal capacity)

July 10th 2016