Northern Light?

Watching from the side-lines of the Labour leadership contest it seems that, so far, very few big ideas have been declared by our four candidates. Of course, the tabloid caricatures have been cast: from so-called Looney Left to so-called Blairite Revisionist. Meanwhile we wait for something to happen.

But the reality is that so much is up for grabs. Will we move back to the Centre? Will we return to the comfort of Blairism or continue the more radical critique of Miliband and beyond? How will we reconnect with the electorate of Middle England whom it seems we failed to persuade in the General Election? How on earth will we come back from the debacle of the Scottish result soon enough to perform well in next year’s Holyrood election? The political landscape has changed. And we somehow have to chart a course through it over the next five years.

Perhaps the first step in determining our direction of travel is to work out where we’re starting from. One of the most instructive articles prior to the election was by Paul Mason. He argued that the country is now dominated by three groups; ‘Scandi-Scotland’, the asset-rich south east and post-industrial Britain. He argued that the Scots, south-eastern England and the post-industrial North and Wales are now living out conflicting narratives. The danger for the Labour Party is that while Blairism recognised this trend and adapted to it, winning seats in the south, we were wrong to assume that post-industrial Britain and Scotland would come along for the ride.

Mason also points out that the SNP and the Tories have captured the zeitgeist of their heartlands well. Labour has not, ceding votes to Ukip, the SNP and the Tories. The upshot is the loss of Scotland to the SNP, the loss of the South East to the supposedly more aspiration-friendly Tories, and the huge increase in the Ukip vote in the North. If Ukip were as good at politics as the SNP would Labour have lost more seats in the North? Almost certainly. Labour needs to ensure that we don’t miss the writing on the wall: as well as developing a narrative that wins back Blair-era southern voters and reclaiming our place in Scotland, we need to talk about The North.

The long-term status of the North as a Labour heartland cannot be taken for granted. The tribal loyalties and family connections which used to define our presence in the North are waning. It’s arguable that, like the industry which once defined it, Labour’s roots in these communities have loosened. The roots are not gone. But we cannot afford to go any further without tending to them.

True, all is not lost. As accurate as that Maggie Simpson electoral map was, there remains strong support for Labour in the North East, and in urban centres like Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester. Indeed, in areas like Wearside – first to declare on polling day – incumbents Julie Elliot, Sharon Hodgson and Bridgette Phillipson all increased their majorities considerably. Labour is still the party which can best represent the North. But to do that we will need to both up our game and lobby for changes that will allow the North to flourish again.

Sandwiched between the resurgent nationalisms of Scotland and Wales, pressured by protest votes, underwhelmed by deepening apathy and left behind by the relative affluence of the South East, the North has been taken for granted; not just by Labour but by the country as a whole.

That we have a dysfunctional economy, far too dependent upon London and the South East, is obvious. This imbalance is evidenced in the inequality that we find all over: from the East End of Glasgow to the docks of Sunderland, from the valleys of North Wales and, ironically, to the outskirts of London itself. Our politics also remains heavily-weighted to London with Westminster, and to some degree the London Assembly and the Boris Effect, creating a self-fulfilling gravitational pull for investment. This fact was only partially-acknowledged during the election campaign, even although it affects the whole country.

But crucially, whilst Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have Parliaments and Assemblies to represent their voice and some of the powers needed to stimulate their economies, the North has been left with only local, and not regional, government.

The North has a problem. It has been taken for granted and ignored. But even now the Labour Party remains the best hope for a transformed, empowered and dynamic North. So what should we do?

In Glasgow, to be ‘Clyde-built’ was once a badge of communal pride, something that helped shape the identity of an entire city: it’s now a nostalgic reference to the industrial heritage of ship-building. At one time, the relationship in parts of the country between local education, employers and the wider community was so inter-related as to be inseparable. Even football clubs were part of this eco-system, with teams like The Blades, the Potters, the Cobblers or the Brewers named after the local industries. This socio-economic model is no more. All we have left are traces and disconnected parts. And it’s not just the loss of jobs and consequent wealth of previous generations which leaves a hole, but the dilution of the very sense of identity which many communities found at least in part from the ‘Made in’ stamp.

So what’s the lesson here? Firstly, communal identity can be an important factor in socio-economic success. The community that works together, stays together, it seems, even after most of the work has gone. Secondly, if we are to create the modern equivalent to the old communities centred around local industries and stimulate integrated local economies, focussed on creativity, hard work and shared identity, then more power needs to be held more locally. This is the opposite of the individualistic approach of neo-liberal economics in which each ‘producer’ is a singular widget in a vast economic machine. It’s an alternative to the creeping authoritarianism of the SNP in Scotland or the Conservatives in England.

But we need to go above the level of the immediate town and the Local Authority. It’s the impact of that core Labour ideal – solidarity – which will help the North as a whole find its voice, not just in the UK, but throughout the world.

Politically this puts Labour in a complicated situation. We began devolution but we didn’t see it through, side-tracked by wars and declining radicalism after years in power. The result is a half baked devolution which is itself the cause of some of the tension felt in Wales and the North. Why shouldn’t Wales have the same powers as Scotland, ask Plaid Cymru? Why should the North be ignored or need to resort to ‘take us with you Scotland’ pleas after a Tory victory? George Osborne’s ‘northern powerhouse’ whether real or imagined is clearly intended to begin the decontamination of the Tory brand in the North and to centralise power in the hands of a sprinkling of city Mayors. To oppose it looks like meanness, yet if Labour is to reclaim the strong support of the North we will need to be much bolder than Osborne.

It is too soon to be setting policy for 2020. We have a leader and deputy leader to elect first and a defeat to digest. At the same time we must not cede the North to the Tories or to UKIP. For that to happen we must develop a strong narrative that offers hope to communities too often left behind; the non-voters, UKIP voters and those in Pudsey, Colne Valley, and Keighley that don’t like what Labour had to offer this time round. The offer must give hope to communities which have had little since before Thatcherism, communities New Labour too passed by.

And it has to be about more than devolution; it has to involve power and money. Bad decisions made locally are just as bad as bad decisions made far away. Labour needs to be content with the direction set by the North being different from that of London, the South, Wales or Scotland. This will require ambitious policy and a clear settlement for the other parts of the UK. The risks are real, the rewards – not least for the people of Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds and Grimsby – are huge.

We end with some tentative suggestions. If power and money are needed in addition to deliberation, any devolution must involve tax raising powers, a demarcated area that is ‘the North’, and the ability to make choices which are different from those of surrounding regions.

We believe that this would be best realised by the creation of a ‘Mayor of the North’, a First Minister of Northern England. This role would have powers and budget akin to the Mayor of London, would be directly-elected every five years in line with Parliamentary Elections, and would be scrutinised by a Northern Assembly comprised by 100 Councillors from the Local Authorities of the North. This new tier of ‘super-Councillors’ would be paid a full-time wage and would split their time between their Local Authority responsibilities and the Northern Assembly.

Assembly Members would be elected by their peers in the Local Authority which would form an Electoral College, itself reflective of the popular vote in each Local Authority election. The Assembly (which would be at least as powerful as the London Assembly), and the Northern First Minister would operate a significant budget garnered from both Central Government and a proportion of Local Government Council Tax receipts and Business Rates. These funds would be used across the range of powers currently devolved to Local Government. But, significantly, the budget could also be allocated to one-off infrastructure or other flagship projects.

There are of course questions to be answered: How would such an Assembly and First Minister work in partnership with London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh? Where in the North would they be based? What would their exact powers be? How would the relative responsibilities of the Assembly and the councils of the North be integrated? Should this form part of a wider new constitutional settlement that finishes the incomplete devolution of New Labour and that benefits other regions?

These questions cannot be answered definitively without some degree of trial and error. But this is nothing to be scared of. These proposals are less dramatic than the waves of devolution the Celtic nations have experienced since 1999, continuing up to this day. And those waves are only moving in one direction.

Our challenge is to continue to outwork our mandate as the unity party; the party which transcends nationalism, authoritarianism, narrow sectionalism and self-interest, and which instead cultivates flourishing, confident communities that are rooted in social justice. To achieve that we have to do something that political parties don’t like to do with power: we have to give it away.

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Maggie Thatcher’s Christmas Gift Card

When was the last time you received a Gift Card at Christmas? Were you pleased that you could choose a present for yourself instead of leaving the big decision up to your granny? Or were you just disappointed at the thoughtlessness of the gift giver?

Recently I’ve been re-reading Michael Sandel’s seminal book on the ever-expanding realm of economic theory, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. Sandel is no anarcho-syndicalist (thank you, Monty Python) or socialist. He sees the importance of the traditional market economy to ordering the economic transactions of society. However, he also sees the march of Economics into areas of life which once seemed beyond its remit and worries that the market economy is slowly morphing into a market society.

One of the examples which he gives of this ’commercialisation effect’ is our increasing tendency to give each other vouchers or straightforward cash instead of a personalised gift. To the utilitarian, this exchange makes perfect sense: we each know what we want for ourselves more than others do. So, if we give each other gift cards or cash (the ultimate credit note, redeemable anywhere) we maximise utility. But where does this leave thoughtfulness, the personal touch, the feeling of the gesture? For example, would you give your mum a cash gift for her 60th birthday without feeling a little bit naff? Does reducing gift-giving to the level of a utilitarian transaction diminish it somehow?

I believe that it does, and I share Sandel’s concern about the impact that commercialisation is having in Britain today as the dominant socio-political ideology of our time. Gift cards are just a symptom of a phenomenon which affects much more than Santa’s Christmas present list.

Although the dawn of the market society in Britain has had many catalysts, it was the High Priest of Capitalism Margaret Thatcher and the ism which she spawned which did most to establish the altar of commercialism in the modern era. Without the eighteen years of Conservative government in the late 20th Century (eleven of them under Thatcher), it’s hard to imagine the recent privatisation of the Royal Mail and the commercialisation of the National Health Service (for example via the tendering process) going ahead. Thatcher’s shadow looms large over British politics and the British media, to the extent that the legislation to introduce these changes was passed with barely a whimper from those of us on the Left, let alone the wider public. In the 1970s, such changes would have led to social unrest.

But should we care in 2013? Surely market reasoning can introduce greater efficiency into the public services which we enjoy in this country, and the cost-savings that we so badly need to help us address a record national debt of £1.3 trillion? There is no doubt in my mind that the public sector does have lessons to learn from the private sector and the rigor of the market economy.

However, returning to Sandel’s rationale, I fear we’re in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath water if we allow our public services to become subsumed into the ideology of a market society. The means do not always justify the ends. As Sandel suggests, the market society model can lead to the moral values which underpin our society – for example, the selfless act of gift-giving – being ‘crowded out’ by more utilitarian concerns, or quite simply the bottom line.

For instance, the commercialisation of the Healthcare System – like the tendering out of certain NHS services to Virgin Care and other private healthcare providers – fundamentally changes the nature of healthcare and the way in which it is provided. By necessity, it’s the Profit Principle which predominates in a commercial venture: the profitability of the healthcare provision matters most, at least to the owners or shareholders of the company providing it. By default, this pushes the principle of Service for its own sake down the list of competing priorities.

Commercialisation of public services can alter the way in which they are delivered too. In recent years, we’ve seen how using low-paid, low-skilled (and cheap) staff in privately-run care homes can create an ‘it’s just a job’ culture in which an attitude of distain for the patients can arise. Services which safeguard the dignity of vulnerable patients are more likely in a context where those serving see their job as a vocation which is highly-valued by society, and view good service as a worthy end in itself, not just a means by which to secure the next lucrative contract.

And commercialisation also affects the way in which services are received. If I’m a client – as opposed to a patient – I may be more likely to feel short-changed (with all the impatience, and lack of understanding that this can entail) if I don’t receive the standard of care that I expect for myself, however high or unrealistic my standards are. If you’ve spend any time in an Accident & Emergency reception recently, you may know what I mean.

So the means do affect the ends, and in this case in a way that diminishes the service which keeps our country healthy. Or for that matter in a way which disadvantages those who live in a far flung location. Why should a business, whose raison d’etre is primarily to make a profit, prioritise a service which is cost-intensive but delivers very little financial gain? Sorry, Isle of Lewis, it’s just too awkward (i.e. expensive) to deliver your Christmas presents this year.

The benefit of a publicly-owned postal service on the other hand is that it aggregates the risk for the family living on a small island. Their post is relatively affordable to deliver because the volume of deliveries in London makes the enterprise profitable overall. It’s solidarity which presides, not narrow selfishness.

In the race to the bottom line which commercialisation of our public services brings, we are in danger of brushing aside the values on which they have previously been founded: civic virtue, solidarity, compassion, fraternity, fairness and even-handedness. Instead, utility, efficiency, wealth and individualism predominate.

I think Sandel sums the danger up well when he says:

“This economistic view of virtue fuels the faith in markets and propels their reach into places they don’t belong. … Altruism, generosity, solidarity, and civic spirit are not like commodities that are depleted with use. They are more like muscles which grow stronger and develop with exercise. One of the defects of a market-driven society is that it lets these virtues languish. To renew our public life we need to exercise them more strenuously”.

So, this Christmas, if you receive a Gift Card, do remember and thank Maggie.