Why the North, why now, and what’s new? Part I

For England’s sake, the time has come for Northern England to find its ‘inner powerhouse’

Craig BerryIn the wake of the general election, Englishness as a national identity is being articulated in an increasingly aggressive manner.  When all the dust has settled, we may in future come to see this as the key legacy of the 2015 general election – or even of the 2008 financial meltdown that continues to shape politics in the UK.  In this post (the first in a series of two) I argue that this trend reinforces the importance of Northern England to progressive politics.

The assertion of English nationhood is, in part, a knee-jerk response to the rise of Scottish nationalism. At the same time, the Scottish National Party’s remarkable success since 2011 can be understood as a reaction to the perceived England-first approach of the Conservative-led coalition government.

Yet there remains no settled consensus on what Englishness (or even England itself) is: as Michael Kenny argues, it has often been asserted in the past to support progressive causes.  The St. George’s Cross re-entered the mainstream public realm only fairly recently, and the Conservative Party (or Conservative and Unionist Party, to give the party its full title), although a longstanding bastion of Englishness as a cultural form, is a relative latecomer to the notion of England as a political entity.

As such, the meanings and political implications of Englishness are up for grabs.  I agree with those on the right of the Labour Party arguing that, if the party is to have any future as a governing party, it must embrace English identity.  But John Denham’s idea for an English Labour Party strikes the wrong tone entirely – separating organisation and leadership in England from the UK-wide party would simply reinforce the London-centric tendency that has alienated Labour from its grassroots.

It would be a mistake for Labour simply to accommodate the ascendant English identity currently being authored by David Cameron and Nigel Farage.  To recover, it must wrestle Englishness from England’s South-East corner – where the right alone, for the most part, sets the terms of political debate – and refashion it in the image of the North of England. The Conservatives’ England-first approach is, in practice, really about putting London’s financial services sector first.

It is tempting to sympathise with those in Northern England who dream about allying with Scotland to secure a progressive future.  But the Scottish economy is actually doing rather well out of the UK government’s London-centred agenda, due to the strength of financial services in Edinburgh.  More profoundly, progressive forces have to recognise that ‘exit‘ from the union is not a realistic option for the North – ‘voice’ is the only way forward.  Clearly, English identity is already starting to gain a political foothold in the North, in the form of UKIP’s populist appeal to former British National Party supporters and some Labour supporters worried about immigration.

Clearly, Labour cannot govern based on a (depleted) heartlands strategy alone.  But equally it cannot function as a mass party at all without a strong geographical base.  With Scotland lost for a generation, the North is pretty much all Labour has left.

Complacency about Labour’s strength in the North is not therefore an option.  Despite the rise of UKIP in the North, and the exclusion of most of the North from the economic recovery, the Conservatives – in marked contrast to popular perceptions – did remarkably well in the North at the election.  A more detailed analysis of the party’s performance in Northern England at the 2015 general election is available in the latest SPERI British Political Economy Brief, published today.

Labour did very well in many of London’s less affluent constituencies; understandably, the party will want to celebrate this success.  It also has to recognise, however, the paradox that London’s unique privilege within the UK brings with it a toxic mix of racial and socio-economic inequalities, undermining the Conservatives’ appeal in large parts of the capital.  But it is its very peculiarity among English cities that means London cannot be the geographical base of a nationwide Labour revival.

The North has unique characteristics too, but the experience of post-industrial decay most evident in the North is one that resonates to a greater or lesser extent in many other regions of the UK, including large parts of Scotland and Wales.

The great cities of Northern England have at crucial times in British history played an enormous role in the country’s economic development.  In return, many Northern enclaves have become very affluent.  By contrast, the majority of the North has always had to fight for its fair share of national prosperity.  It is this distinctive arrangement – economically central but politically peripheral – which has always driven Northern politics and framed many of the formal and informal political institutions that have formed here.

It is not by accident, therefore, that the TUC was born of Northern England.  So was The Guardian. Both of these have migrated south, but must now come home.  And these are only the most well-known icons of the North’s political tapestry, a dense associational life which has in recent years lost its progressive hue.  Crucially, these organisations never sought to speak only to the North, or even for the North, but rather from the North, about conditions common to many parts of the country (and indeed the world) in a capitalist global economy.

My contention, then, is that the opening-up of political space around English identity offers the North a chance to reassert the universality of the Northern experience – shedding the sense of ‘otherness’ that dominates depictions of Northern England within a political, media and business elite which takes its cue almost exclusively from London and the home counties.  Yet the enormous Northern tribe no longer identifies as readily with Labour as it once did, and the spectre of an ugly version of nationalism looms large.  As a matter of urgency, Labour needs to start looking like the society it wants to create.

In part two of these linked posts, I will look at George Osborne’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda.  But, in the meantime, the conclusion of this first instalment is clear: the North needs to rediscover its inner powerhouse.