Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Northern Discomfort

Today MPs Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett are launching their report 'Northern Discomfort,' which argues for a radical change in Labour's approach to communities in the North of England.

Enough is enough. This week we read in the Marmot Report about the devastating consequences of health inequality in Britain. We now know that life expectancy in the most deprived communities in the North is in decline; that the North East and Yorkshire have the highest rates of male suicide; that the average wealth of households in the South East is 2.6 times higher than in the North East.

We also read that local authorities in ‘left behind’ communities in the North and elsewhere have suffered the greatest funding cuts. It is shocking that hard-working communities have been abandoned in this way in the post-industrial economy which now prevails.

As two MPs born and raised in the North, and representing former mining communities, we are determined to make voices rooted in Northern working-class communities heard. It is time that the silent desperation which so many communities feel turns to righteous anger.

In many ways it is not true that these communities were simply ‘left behind’ in a kind of globalised economic race. The truth is that our regions have been deliberately held back by a political and economic elite which is based in a tiny enclave of wealth and privilege in the centre of London. The situation is no longer tolerable. Things have to change. Fast. Including within our own party.

This is why today we are publishing our pamphlet Northern Discomfort – which makes recommendations about how to proceed in order to restore a more just and balanced country – and announcing a new initiative. 

On December 12th Labour’s worst fears were realised. The Tories won their biggest majority in a generation having already been in power for 10 years. Labour gained Putney but lost 61 seats, many of which had been red for a century. The vast majority were in the Midlands and the North.

Of course, Labour’s heartlands are to be found across our country, in Hastings, Hackney and Hartlepool. But we are determined that the loss of so many Northern English seats will not be passed over in silence. 

In 1992, following Labour’s fourth straight defeat, North Durham MP Giles Radice published a report for the Fabian Society called Southern Discomfort. He advocated a break with our traditions of solidarity in pursuit of Southern voters, and a new Labour Party focusing on a narrow definition of what he called ”aspiration.”

This New Labour view of aspiration was too individualistic, top down, hierarchical and based on competition. It focused on one outcome: to make everyone ‘middle class.’ It became the blueprint for the hugely successful Blairite political project. 

But it was flawed. To imagine that aspiration is purely about success in terms of personal progress, or to associate it with a new demographic of middle England, was to misunderstand the nature of hope for a better life. Aspiration doesn’t belong to a single group of voters.

Take the universal aspiration for a home we can be proud of. While for many buying their own house was a realistic prospect, there were many others who saw community provision of social housing for rent as the best way to get a decent home.

As a country we almost stopped building council houses. And we gave the impression that to want a council house was somehow demeaning. But the private market of housing in Britain never worked properly, and only when collective provision was introduced was it possible to say that we might as a country meet unmet housing needs.

There is a similar debate about education. For generations of working people, education was seen not as a commodity but as a public good to be paid for by the taxpayer. The ideas that education should be marketised, that children should be units of account, that schools should be led by chief executives rather than head teachers, or that higher education should be paid for by tuition fees was never part of the hopes of working people to improve their lives.

In the end this New Labour political orientation delivered a lot of progress; but it came at a huge cost. Too many working-class voters came to believe that Labour was not interested in them. There was a crass assumption that our working-class base simply had nowhere else to go, so the party could focus its efforts elsewhere. But in 2019, our Northern heartlands did find somewhere else.

In the summer of 2019, before the election, while Theresa May was still prime minister, we prepared a document called Northern Discomfort. Tragically, the election showed that a substantial portion of our analysis was accurate. Events in the Autumn meant that our pamphlet was not distributed. We publish it now with a brief update on the election result.

The discussion around Brexit played a huge role in the last election. Of the seats we lost in England all but two had voted to leave the European Union. For too many of our voters, the comments of leading Remain-facing Labour spokespersons confirmed their suspicion that Labour no longer spoke for them.

But Brexit was not the only election issue. It merely served to speed up a decline in our heartlands that had been decades in the making. In many communities that relied on an industry long gone, this malaise has bitten deep. For too long Labour had been seen as a distant presence

Let’s be blunt. A new political class came to be dominant in our party to the extent that in 2017 only four Labour MPs came from a background of manual labour while 137 came from a professional political background. When any one sector so dominates the PLP, then there is a serious risk that we lose our national appeal to all of the groups which we need to win over.

Many former Labour voters say we are becoming a patronising party, guided by a kind of authoritarian liberalism. There is a gulf of understanding and cultural expectations which seems unbridgeable. 

We cannot win if we become disconnected from our Northern heartlands. We should never want to. They helped give birth to the Labour Party. Our purpose was to emancipate people from difficult economic conditions, which are now especially concentrated in the post-industrial communities. If we don’t represent them, what do we exist for?

It’s a question of values but it’s also a matter of mathematics. Without those seats, we cannot win. We should be confident that by boldly embracing those values and building policies which are based upon them, we can convince our historic winning coalition of the middle- and working-classes that we deserve to be elected. 

We are the largest party in Europe, but we must urgently seek to build our membership in communities with Northern characteristics, particularly encouraging those from manual, routine and caring backgrounds into politics. We should build representation of working-class members (in all their diversity) into our party from top to bottom, and consider protected shortlists to do so.

The notion that we don’t need to resource so-called ‘safe seats’ is ridiculous. Community organising as well as organising in workplaces should be vastly expanded.

Let’s renew the social contract which we always wanted to create between our movement and the nation. Labour was never intended to be a career ladder constructed for professional politicians to climb. It was created to be a mass movement designed to transform our society from top to bottom. 

Our purpose was to promote the common good; a better society for all. The first step on our journey is surely to rediscover our working-class foundations, upon which a great movement can yet be built. Our pamphlet analyses the situation and it makes recommendations for debate. But while analysis and recommendations are always good things, we see this as a political intervention. It’s time to move on to action. Passivity will no longer do.

We invite socialists in the North to contact us. We believe that we need a collective Northern voice and are recommending the establishment of a Northern Socialist Network. Its purpose is to transform our country so that justice is restored. This cannot be a movement for the faint-hearted. If the North feels abandoned by the Left, then it will abandon us.


We welcome any comments, so if you live in the North and you’re a socialist, please do get in touch through [email protected] providing your name and region.