The political and economic shape of the UK is changing rapidly and the North of England is losing out. The debate over Scottish independence is only the most obvious sign of a major political shift, together with the overwhelming vote for more powers to be given to the Welsh Government. In addition to Scotland and Wales, both Northern Ireland and London now have substantial devolved powers.
Only the English regions continue to be dominated by London-based civil servants. As well as the democratic deficit, there is increasing evidence that the ‘North-South Divide’ is back with a vengeance. Research by IPPR North has shown a widening social and economic divide within England. The North is experiencing higher unemployment, more business failures, lower life expectancy and less investment in basic infrastructure such as transport.
The Hannah Mitchell Foundation has been formed to campaign for elected regional government for the North and to promote a new politics which is inclusive and democratic, re-interpreting the traditional socialist values of fellowship and mutual aid which once sunk deep roots in England’s North, as well as in the south Wales valleys and central belt of Scotland. It has excited mixed views. Some politicians who supported calls for regional devolution in the last Labour Government have yet to recover from the shock of the disastrous 2004 referendum in the North-east which sent a very clear ‘No thanks’ to Tony Blair and John Prescott. It was seen as another layer of bureaucracy with little power. We’ve got to draw lessons from the 2004 experience and move on. We are not the only part of the UK whose plans for devolution were initially rejected!
The Foundation’s supporters include politicians as diverse as John Prescott, Jon Cruddas, Louise Ellman and Austin Mitchell. Halifax MP Linda Riordan is the Foundation’s president. It has to be said we are heavily Labour-dominated, but with growing membership from Greens and non-aligned devolutionaries.
The Foundation is named in memory of an outstanding Northern socialist, feminist and co-operator who was proud of her working class roots and had a cultural as well as political vision for the North. Her autobiography, The Hard Way Up (1968), is a very honest account of her life, which included just a fortnight’s ‘schooling’. She went on to become an accomplished speaker, writer and activist for the fledgling Independent Labour Party (ILP). She was involved in the women’s suffrage movement and campaigned across Lancashire, Yorkshire and the North-East. Her socialism was of the ethical, humanistic kind which became so popular across the North where the ILP was strongest.
Believing that values-based politics needs reviving in a form relevant to the 21st Century, the Foundation is exploring ways of engaging with young people and the North’s diverse ethnic communities. That needs to feed in to ideas for how a future elected regional government might work. Nobody wants it to become a cosy retirement home for ex-MPs and former council leaders.
We think it makes sense to look at ‘the North’ as a whole and include Yorkshire, the North-East and North-West in a ‘super-region’ which could have powers similar to those enjoyed by the Scots. This should not be about taking power away from the local level, but gaining a range of powers from Whitehall and Westminster. The slide into economic decline will not be reversed on their own by local authorities that are struggling to maintain existing services, nor the grossly under-funded Local Enterprise Partnerships. There is a desperate need for strategic intervention at the regional level – on transport infrastructure, economic development and skills, to develop a vibrant Northern economy. At the same time, we need strong, empowered local government which re-connects with people and stimulates community action.
Nobody would under-estimate the difficulty of moving towards regional government for the North. Yet the need to counter, on the one hand, the economic and political dominance of the south-east, and the increasingly confident and autonomous Scots and Welsh, is becoming increasingly urgent.
An ‘English Parliament’ is not the answer to the North’s problems. It would only reflect and consolidate existing inequalities and potentially breed an ugly English nationalism. The North needs its own voice, as part of a more democratic England, within the United Kingdom. It’s not about being ‘anti-South’. It’s all about being ‘pro-North’.
We’re interested in developing links with activists in Wales whose vision of a decentralised, inclusive and co-operative future fits with our own. Recently, several of our members heard Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood speak in Manchester on ‘re-balancing Britain’ [ being published by ClickonWales Friday]. We found much in her speech to agree with. We want to learn from the experience of devolutionaries, and progressive nationalists, in Wales, Scotland and other parts of Europe.
The Foundation was formed last year to build support for regional devolution within, and beyond, the centre-left, which includes Greens, Liberal Democrats and non-aligned socialists as well as Labour supporters. Earlier this year we were involved in organising the highly successful ‘Hannah Festival’ in Leeds, which celebrated creativity and innovation in the North. A new Northern politics cannot be just about government structures but also culture, creativity and doing things differently. To paraphrase Emma Goldman, if we can’t dance to it, it’s not our revolution.
As the momentum for regional devolution gathers pace, we recognise that a broader, cross-party and more widely representative organisation will be needed. Scotland had its ‘Constitutional Convention’ in the 1980s which brought politicians, business leaders, voluntary and faith organisations together. The North needs something like it. Maybe it should be a ‘Council for the North’. Interest is growing and the Foundation is looking at organising a ‘Northern Convention’ early next year to bring together a much wider cross-section of groups and individuals.
It’s very early days, but the Foundation has already attracted lots of interest and is becoming the catalyst for a new approach to Northern politics. As one Yorkshire MP, Angela Smith, said recently “This time we have to do it; no half-baked proposals with few powers!” We’ll stand a better chance of doing it if we can learn from our friends in other nations and regions within and beyond the UK who have already done it – or are on their way.