Northern lessons Labour must Learn

The ripples bouncing across Britain’s constitutional pond since 9/18 have not been limited to its Scottish corners. English regionalism too has undoubtedly been stirred, posing questions of our constitutional future as well as the multiple failures of Westminster parties to address this. Chartist’s Paul Salveson, who writes our Points & Crossings column, has recently left the Labour party to join Yorkshire First, a party formed around the mission of a devolved assembly for Yorkshire. Here he tells us – and the Labour party – why.

Who said it, where and when?

“Two million Scots sided last week with parties who say there is no alternative to austerity for a generation to come. The fact that austerity is an abysmal failure with brutal consequences was not mentioned in the Better Together small print. But the idea that ‘more powers’ will mean more useful powers is a myth. No Chancellor, Tory or Labour, is going to allow Scotland the means to prosperity while he hacks away at the welfare state elsewhere”.

Why I’m leaving Labour

I’ve been thinking about this for months. Agonising is too strong a word but it hasn’t been easy. Coming home to Huddersfield after a remarkable two weeks in Scotland has finally made me do it. As of now, I am no longer a member of the Labour Party. There are lots of reasons – these decisions are never simple or straight forward. I can’t say that I’ve ever had great faith in the ability of the national leadership to effect radical change, though I did have some hopes of Ed Miliband’s leadership. I think he’s a decent man who represents a big improvement on previous leaders. But sorry Ed, what you’re offering isn’t enough. Watching your speech at Labour Party conference failed to move me, though much of what you said was fine. It was what you didn’t say – forget the deficit – what about Trident renewal?

And also what Ed Balls did say, about caps to child benefit and ‘austerity lite’ which were the final nails in the coffin. Following the US line on Iraq only served to re-inforce a decision I’d already reached. And Scotland! Spending time in Scotland talking to ‘yes’ campaigners and just reading the Scottish press was yet another factor in coming to this decision. It was particularly offensive having Labour MPs and party workers shipped up to Scotland like some sort of colonial army telling Scots how to vote.  ‘Official’ Labour has done a good job of propping up a UK political establishment which seemed to be on the verge of crashing.  Our nuclear deterrent is safe! Here’s to £100bn (and more) which can now be safely spent on Trident renewal. I think Labour in Scotland will pay a very heavy price in next year’s general election. The apparently ‘defeated’ SNP is recruiting new members by the thousands, closely followed by the Greens and Scottish Socialist party.

Probably my biggest reason for saying a final goodbye is Labour’s attitude to English devolution, which has shot up the agenda in the last few weeks. Over the last two and a half years I’ve been working with friends and colleagues in the Hannah Mitchell Foundation to try to persuade Labour to re-state its previous support for regional assemblies. Whilst we have had great support from principled back bench MPs like Linda Riordan, Austin Mitchell (for all his eccentricities!) and several more, it has proved impossible to influence the front bench. Labour is offering nothing more than indirectly-elected – and almost completely unaccountable – ‘combined authorities’. These will do nothing to energise people to vote, let alone become politically active. We are told (by politicians) that the public ‘don’t want more politicians’. I rather think it’s a case of politicians being challenged by a new kind of politics. But let’s see. If the public really don’t want ‘a new tier of government’ in the shape of regional assemblies, they will have the opportunity to vote them down at the polls, with the emergence of regionalist parties such as Yorkshire First and the North East Party. Yorkshire First has issued a press release about my resignation and support for the new radical party for Yorkshire.

What is ‘Yorkshire First’?

It’s a new party, only formed in March this year. In many ways it isn’t a traditional formally constituted party with ‘a line on everything’ but a flexible and non-dogmatic network. Its main focus is on a directly-elected regional assembly for Yorkshire, and all candidates are expected to sign up to the Bell Principles of political behaviour. These basically stress the importance of ethical conduct, respect for other politicians and no party whip.

Yorkshire First won nearly 20,00 votes in the European elections in May. It is planning to stand candidates in next year’s General Election.

Scotland during Referendum Week

We hadn’t intended to be political tourists. Our autumn holiday to Scotland (with visit to the kids on Skye) had been planned for ages. It just happened that we booked an apartment in Dundee during the final week of the Referendum campaign. Honest.

And it was sheer co-incidence that Dundee returned the highest ‘yes’ vote for anywhere in Scotland, with 57% opting for independence, followed by West Dunbartonshire, Glasgow and North Lanarkshire. We met several ‘yes’ campaigners and the impression that this wasn’t about so-called ‘narrow nationalism’ was reinforced time and again.

It was about democracy and creating a fairer society. A few months earlier the idea that yes’ could have won 45% of the vote would have been regarded as laughable. Despite all the threats and warnings, in the face of huge media opposition, to get such a high vote was amazing. The high point of the campaign for me was the Saturday night before the vote, when a couple of polls suggested that Scotland was moving towards a ‘yes’. The sense of panic within the British political establishment was wonderful to behold. In the end, the old order prevailed, with people scared about their pensions, mortgages and jobs. Our great rulers came together in a splendid show of self-preservation; Scotland voted ‘no’. But it was a close run thing for all that, and the subsequent events have been more remarkable. The three parties which supported independence – SNP, Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialist Party have been recording huge membership increases. Some defeat eh? The SNP’s membership has shot up from around 25,000 to over 70,000 in the space of two weeks. Whilst the Labour Party congratulates itself on ‘saving the union’ I suspect it will be a pyrrhic victory, with a drastic loss of MPs north of the border come next May. This may cost Labour an overall majority in the House of Commons.

Better Together?

Opinion within pro-devolution bodies like Hannah Mitchell Foundation were divided on whether a ‘yes’ would have been good for the North of England. We’ll never know the answer to that question, at least for the next few years. So ‘we are where we are’ and the reality is that the referendum itself, combined with the huge politicisation of thousands of people in Scotland, represents a great opportunity for devolutionaries south of the border. Some links have already been established between regionalists and pro-independence campaigners. Whilst our objectives are different (few people in the North are advocating independence) we share a common critique of Westminster and the current governance of the UK.

Having an awakened Scotland within the UK means that there is massive scope to build alliances on all sorts of levels – with political campaigners, unions, community organisations. It ought to be in the interests of the SNP, Scottish Greens and SSP to build alliances with pro-devolution organisations in England. If bodies like Yorkshire First, the North East Party and English Greens can get even a handful of MPs elected next May, they will be good potential allies of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. A new, federal, British Isles, starts to become possible.

This is an excerpt of an article Paul Salveson wrote for his blog (see the full version here). He is General Secretary of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, which campaigns for devolution for the North of England and was a Labour Councillor in Kirklees until 2012.

Leave a comment...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.