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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A Seismology of Political Earthquakes

What should we make of the recent European and Local election results? Nigel Farage’s claim that his party has secured the “most extraordinary result in British politics for the last 100 years” is, at first glance, hard to deny. As the party with the largest share of the national vote (around 28%) – the first time that the Tories or Labour have been displaced at the top of the pile since 1906 – UKIP have achieved a remarkable entry into mainstream UK politics. Their 24 MEPs are very hard to ignore indeed.

Likewise in the local elections; although Labour have topped the polls, winning control of six more Councils and adding 338 new Councillors, UKIP gained 161 new Councillors, to give them 370 Councillors overall and make them the 5th largest political Party in local government (after the SNP).

This demonstrable shift rightwards in British politics is a challenging reality for those of us on the political Left. What this might mean for the General Election in 2015 is open for discussion, but it’s certainly not to be dismissed.

Meanwhile, we are well and truly in the countdown to September 18th, the day our friends in Scotland will make a decision on whether to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom and form an independent country. Although the No vote has consistently remained out in front in all polls, there’s no question that a sizeable Yes vote exists in Scotland, and that the referendum result can yet go either way.

So what does all of this mean? I think that there are a few points worth making:

1. The UK electorate is tired of political business as usual – I think that the drive for an independent Scotland by a large minority on one hand and the remarkable growth in support for UKIP are both indicative of a more widely-held frustration with the way that we do politics in the UK. The lightning rod for this politics fatigue was, of course, the Expenses scandal. But the national furore around this scandal was actually encouraging – if society can’t raise its voice on an issue like this, then there really is no hope for our politics. Instead it’s the widespread apathy and disengagement by huge sections of the electorate which is to me a more worrying phenomenon. It’s the failure of all of the major political parties to really connect with and inspire the great mass of the electorate (and in fairness, we’re trying!) that has been the handmaiden of the rise of Scottish Nationalism and UKIP Little Britainism. If your narrative is that the system doesn’t work, and that politicians aren’t listening, then why not fundamentally alter it and just hope for the best?

2. The UK electorate is feeling fearful and protective – Although supporters of Yes Scotland and UKIP would each claim to have very little in common, both are supporting a political programme which is fundamentally about a retrenchment away from internationalism and collaboration, and back into what they regard as their primary identity – whether British or Scottish. These are political views which have been with us for a long time, particularly in the case of Scottish Nationalism. But their resurgence in recent years is, in my view, closely connected to the economic situation which began in 2007 and which we are still trying to untangle. When we are fearful about our material situation, we tend to withdraw to the familiar. We also tend to think that we can spend limited resources better than ‘them’. There is some truth in this, and I’ll say more about localisation of power below. But this withdrawal often correlates to – or even facilitates – an irrational fear of the Other; and soon some are complaining about the Romanian family who have moved in next door.

3. The Labour Party needs a reformation – I would say this, but I think that the mainstream political party trying hardest to move to a new model of politics is the Labour Party. We’ve always been about community organising and everyday people, but initiatives like Your Britain and the Future Candidates Programme are trying to move Labour Party politics beyond the usual suspects. Nevertheless, Labour needs to go further. As I’ve become more involved in the party over the last three years, it’s been a steep learning curve. Coming in with the zeal of the convert, looking to change the world, it’s easy to quickly get bogged down in a whole new lexicon of in-group language and behaviour, which can tend to dampen enthusiasm. It strikes me again and again just how similar this must be to a non-Christian joining a church for the first time. Like most long-established institutions, people don’t want to engage with the Labour Party in the same way as their parents or grandparents generation. They want to be part of a movement for change, something that focuses less on meeting protocol and more on policies that bring tangible social progress. If we’re going to re-engage our society with a new enthusiasm for the political process, we’re going to have to go deeper and faster in our attempts to change business as usual. Constitutional reform – such as a serious democratisation of the House of Lords, or implementation of a version of proportional representation in General Elections – would help. But the Labour Party can continue to lead by example, by introducing more measures like one member one vote for leadership elections, the Union opt-in and more grassroots campaigning.

4. The country needs to localise more political power – On paper our political system is fairly well set up to balance local and national decision-making. Yet if we can draw one lesson from all of the above, it’s that the common experience of politics in the UK is that it’s too remote. Many people feel like politics is something that happens to them, not through them. The more we can move decision-making downwards towards ordinary people, the better. The hope that ordinary voters can influence their communities around them is a strong card to hold. I believe that it’s the relative lack of that hope and connectedness to the political process which is a major factor in parts of the electorate turning to alternatives like Scottish Independence or UKIP or being turned off politics altogether.

One thing’s for sure, if we don’t do something about it, there are many more political earthquakes to come – and I can’t remember hearing an earthquake described fondly.