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The Case for a Northern Labour

Welsh Labour's success in May 2021 points to the power of a devolved party with a clear, inclusive identity. If Labour wants to win again in the North, it should emulate that model.

Credit: Murdo Macleod

The May elections seem a long way away, and perhaps some of us are doing our best to forget them. But there are some lessons from May 2021 which remain important for Labour in the North.

In general, we didn’t do very well, particularly compared with Wales where the results were, if anything, better than many expected. The Tories showed little sign of relinquishing their grip on the so-called ‘Red Wall’ towns, with the continuing town-city divide within the North and other parts of England remaining strong. A relatively new feature was the emergence of small, hyper-local parties in boroughs such as Bolton, Bury, and Oldham.

There hasn’t been a particularly strong showing by other parties on the left, either. The small English regional parties have struggled to make a breakthrough, with poor results in Hartlepool, but some good results in the mayoral elections (West and South Yorkshire) and parts of Durham. The Green Party is making modest progress in places where it has put in consistent local campaigning, but by no means everywhere – however, the alliance between the Greens and Labour in Sheffield City Council could prove an interesting development.

But Labour performed excellently in Wales, where Mark Drakeford’s party matched its best ever Senedd result and took half of the legislature’s 60 seats. Why did Labour perform so well here, when it has struggled in the North of England?

In some ways, the two places are very different. Wales is a nation with its own history and culture, including language. The North of England is (at least) three regions, with identities revolving round locality and historic counties such as Yorkshire and Lancashire.

However, there are core similarities, particularly in the traditionally working class former industrial areas of Wales – in the Valleys in particular, but also the former mining and steel areas around Wrexham and North Wales. While these areas voted strongly to leave the European Union in 2016, that fact has mostly not stopped them remaining with Labour in the Assembly elections. The pattern in similar ‘left-behind’ areas in the North of England has been very different, with swings to either the Tories or hyper-localists in towns like Bolton and Bury.

A number of suggestions have been put forward for why Welsh Labour has done so well. These include the ‘incumbency’ factor and the competent way in which the Labour-run Welsh Government has handled the pandemic. There is also the historic hatred of the Conservatives in many parts of Wales.

But maybe there is something else – that Labour in Wales did not present itself as a sort of local version of Starmer’s Labour, but something distinctly ‘Welsh’; proud of the nation and its heritage, but not aggressively ‘nationalistic’ in a way that might have scared some people – including the large number of English ex-pats in many parts of the country. ‘Welsh Labour’ was clearly seen as something very distinctive, still marking out that ‘clear red water’ between Wales and England which former leader Rhodri Morgan first coined as a metaphor for relations with what was then a Blair-led Labour.

Under the unassuming leadership of Mark Drakeford, Welsh Labour comes over as responsible, progressive, in tune, shaping a green agenda, and committed to further devolution within a reformed Britain. The fact is that Welsh Labour has been seen to be doing a good job. In the North of England, however, the politics are very different. Traditional Labour-held councils have seen further shifts to the Tories or to hyper-local parties, which should not be written off as ‘right-wing’ splits from the Brexit Party or UKIP.

We are talking about those parts of the North which historically have supported Labour – the Boltons, Oldhams, Blackburns in Lancashire and Huddersfield, Bradford, Halifax, Rotherham in Yorkshire. In Manchester, Leeds, and Sheffield—where Labour wins support from the middle-class professionals—there is a very different political tradition emerging, with the Greens performing very well.

Labour could rebuild in the North if it was able to forge an identity around class, community, and region. Class by showing that it is representative of the communities of which it is a part, speaking their language and understanding their issues, including the paramount issue of jobs; community in that it brings people together and champions local concerns, be it local bus services, developing ‘green spaces’, supporting local culture and heritage, or fighting inappropriate development; region in that it is part of the North, in the way that Labour in Wales has promoted itself as being Welsh, but through a very inclusive Welshness.

Labour in the North of England needs to rebuild its trust with the traditional working class, while keeping sure that it is not taking for granted new areas of support. A shared, inclusive Northern identity can help do that – not in any ‘anti-South’ sense, but through pride in our heritage and our present-day identity.

This is about more than clever marketing. Just as Labour in Wales has become effectively its own distinct party in an overarching ‘UK Labour’, we should have our own devolved Northern Labour with our own domestic regional policies, including public ownership of transport and democratic devolution (based on an extension of the Greater Manchester and Merseyside mayoral system, with an elected membership, and covering a broader geographical area to create Greater Lancastria).

If we continue taking orders from the London-based Labour HQ, including having candidates as well as policies foisted on us, people will continue to reject us. Does this mean all parts of England should have their own ‘regionalised’ Labour parties? If that’s what the party membership wants, why not? London Labour makes obvious sense, and something like it already exists organisationally. But the same could work for the Midlands, South West, and Eastern England.

If Starmer and the Labour leadership really want to look at radical solutions, they need to do that most difficult thing for politicians to do – surrender power. A Northern Labour wouldn’t be deciding foreign policy or have its own air force. But there are lots of domestic policies that a Northern Region could have responsibility for, and we need look no further than Wales to see how that could work (and Scotland too, of course). The political expression of Northern devolution must be a devolved political party. It can’t be done by policy wonks in London.