The Choice Facing the North

In this election the North of England will choose between a Labour Party that is fighting to tackle regional inequality - and a Tory Party that has spent the last decade deepening it.

Having laid waste to the industries of northern England, the Conservative Party now thinks it can capitalise on the feelings of resentment, despair and internalised defeat left behind. Far from riding to the rescue of the forgotten North as they like to pretend, the Tories hope that this lingering desperation will provide them with the push they need to ram through an asset-stripping, fire-sale hard Brexit, which will simply exacerbate the economic malaise that has long plagued these areas.

There is now a cottage industry devoted to speculation about the inroads being made by the Tories in post-industrial former Labour strongholds. The myth of “Workington Man” has become the butt of many jokes among residents of the Cumbrian town itself. The prehistoric connotations of the term speak volumes about the way many commentators view the people of the old industrial North — they see “Workington Man” as a battered old corpse, dredged out of some obscure bog to be poked and prodded for the duration of the campaign, its withered entrails read for signs of whatever grisly horrors befell it in times past.

Labour’s Vision

Yet the hardships are all too contemporary. Just last week, there was another demonstration of how precarious the post-industrial North’s service-based employment remains, with more than 4,500 jobs expected to go at Npower call centres across the country, including those in Houghton-le-Spring in County Durham, and Hull. The ongoing decline of the high street continues to hit many northern towns and cities especially hard, with women worst affected by the ensuing job losses. Meanwhile, evidence continues to pile up of how local government cuts have disproportionately targeted the most deprived communities — largely but by no means exclusively concentrated in the north of England — since 2010. It would take a wilfully credulous observer to see this as anything other than Tory policy working exactly as intended.

Since 2015, we’ve received tedious lectures about Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, supposedly beholden to the whims of its wet-behind-the-ears, middle-class, metropolitan activists, pursuing their pet causes that alienate lifelong Labour voters in the party’s former strongholds. But Corbyn’s Labour is the only party taking regional inequality remotely seriously in this election campaign.

In addition to the previously announced plans to establish a national investment bank with branches rooted in the regions to spur economic development, the party is promising new green jobs as part of a Green New Deal. It’s been specific, too – proposing battery factories in Stoke, and steel recycling plants in Redcar, Workington and Corby. The party recently unveiled regional manifestos for each of England’s nine regions.

It has committed itself to revitalising local economies and rebuilding social solidarity with the assistance of a “record investment blitz.” One of the benefits of this programme will be a real transformation in rail travel, with nationalisation, electrification, new infrastructure and cheaper, less complicated fares. And it has gone some way to try to remedy injustices past, offering pension reforms, work-related illness care and an Orgreave inquiry to former coalfield communities.

However, the problem Labour is now faced with is how to convince people to believe in this vision. 

The media response to Labour’s election programme was predictably disdainful, demonstrating once more the eagerness among establishment commentators to batter any hope out of people before they get any peculiar notions: none more peculiar, it seems, than the idea that British society might be made significantly more humane. The Tory programme is threadbare, and insulting in its lack of ambition, but the party hopes that it can keep its head down and let a servile and aggressively incurious media snuff out public interest in Labour’s alternative.

Rebuilding Trust, Devolving Power

Of course, Labour’s difficulties across much of northern England can’t be solely attributed to the failings of the London-based media. After a four-decade onslaught against the organised working-class movement, coupled with the disappearance of old industries into which its trade unions were once rooted, the labour movement is no longer anything like the presence it once was in many working-class communities.

The old “world of labour”, as Ralph Miliband called it, has more or less disappeared, loosening the bonds between the Labour Party and many areas where support was formerly solid. To borrow an industrial metaphor, Scotland was the canary in Labour’s coal mine; its position across much of northern England, as well as Wales, no longer looks quite so secure either. Events since the 2016 EU referendum have again made clear the fragility of its voter coalition.

Nor did 13 years of Labour government after 1997 do much to reverse or even arrest the decline. Some northern cities did comparatively well, at least on the surface. Manchester’s central skyline, now a jumble of glass and steel, still bears witness to the speculative euphoria of the New Labour years. But even these cities are pockmarked by glaring social injustices, and the likely consequences of five more years of Tory government scarcely bear thinking about. For Labour, rebuilding trust and hope in political action across the North, both post-industrial and urban, will take time, patience, persistence and — perhaps most importantly — generous reserves of humility.

The scale of Britain’s regional inequalities is colossal, but the London-centric nature of the country’s political discourse usually fails to register this fact. As Tom Hazeldine pointed out in a powerful essay for New Left Review in 2017, Britain is “more lopsided economically than Italy, despite its notoriously incomplete Risorgimento; than Spain, with its historic polarity of Catalan-Basque industry and Andalusian latifundia; than Germany, where a quarter of a century after reunification GDP per head in the East was still only two-thirds of that in the West; than France, enshadowed by a metropolis great enough to warrant comparison with its cross-Channel neighbour”. The proposals so far outlined by Labour to address regional inequality, though they would represent an important advance and could change many lives decisively for the better, remain modest in what is one of western Europe’s most centralised states, both economically and politically.

Corbynism has not yet grappled seriously with the need to redress the jaw-dropping imbalances of power still concentrated in the British state. Jeremy Gilbert has noted that with so much power having already accumulated in the unaccountable hands of property developers, financial institutions and other private interests, there can be no straightforward transfer of power directly from central government to local or regional authorities. Instead, for any meaningful decentralisation of power worthy of the name, the challenge facing the socialist left in Britain is one of “rebuilding local communities and their institutions as alternative loci of real social power”. Whatever the outcome of December 12th, this is the long-term task to which the Labour Party and the wider labour movement must commit themselves.