The new government has pledged huge capital investment to rebalance the economy while the Labour party looks for a leader that can rebuild the so-called Red Wall. With both of the main Westminster parties recognising the need for a new focus on England’s regions, it is important they learn from past mistakes and adopt a long-term, principled approach.
Once again, the concerns of the people of the North proved a decisive factor at a major electoral event. First at the EU referendum and again in last month’s general election, it has been widely reported that the votes of those living in a swathe of constituencies from north Wales right across to the North East have been critical in hastening the UK’s departure from the EU and transforming the political landscape.
In truth, the Conservative Party gained 33 of the 63 seats deemed to be part of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ and, as Boris Johnson himself acknowledged, those in the North who switched to the Conservatives were minded only to “lend their votes” to a party that might finally Get Brexit Done. While symbolically significant seats like Sedgefield and Leigh were lost and senior party figures like Caroline Flint and Dennis Skinner were ousted, the very idea of a Red Wall was in itself a political construction for the purpose of creating headlines about its demolition and it has been crumbling for some time. The Conservative share of the vote in the North has steadily risen ever since 2005; in 2019 it reached a tipping point.
None of this is to suggest that the Labour Party – or indeed the Conservative government – shouldn’t use this moment for some profound introspection. The Prime Minister is right to recognise that Northern votes lent to him this time around will be hard to retain on a long-term basis unless the party adopts a more interventionist approach to rebalancing the nation. The idea that the North might now be represented by a group of 35 white middle-aged men who will “hunt like a pack” from a “Northern Embassy” in Whitehall hardly captures the Northern mood let alone its diversity. They at least have the opportunity to try.
The Labour Party meanwhile must finally realise that in post-industrial England – as indeed in Scotland too - there will be no ‘coming home’ for Northern voters in 2024 because the very notion of a mass-organised labour movement has long gone. Indeed, it is this point perhaps more than any other, that requires the greatest attention. The North is changing and national political parties – not to mention the political system they serve – are the ones being left behind.
As we enter a new decade, allow me to suggest three principles upon which a more progressive account of regional and place-based politics in England might be built and some of the policy implications that follow.
Regional rebalancing and city systems
First, the rhetorical commitment to regional rebalancing must become more substantive and real. At the general election all parties made significant spending commitments not just for the North of England but for other regions outside London too. The new government has pledged to spend £100 billion on roads, rail and flood defences, £3.6 billion on a Stronger Towns Fund as well as creating a £4.2 billion fund for new bus and rail links in cities outside London. Welcome as this may be, there is a lot of catching up to be done and how the money is spent is perhaps as important as how much.
In the past, Conservative governments have orchestrated elaborate competitive tendering arrangements in order that local authorities and other agencies might compete for such funds. This inevitably leads to accusations of pork-barrel politics and ineffective short-termism. Genuine rebalancing requires a rewriting of the Green Book rules to favour more enterprising investment. This needs to be done alongside a proper programme of fiscal decentralisation with long-term commitments to sub-national bodies granting them much greater freedom to spend (and raise) funds as their economic strategies dictate.
Furthermore, we need a more sophisticated account of the relationships between our towns and cities. Playing them off against one another makes little economic sense even if it serves a political one. Dollops of cash to shore up struggling high streets are unlikely to yield sustainable success. We must understand the role of our post-industrial towns in the context of their neighbouring cities and vice-versa. Unlike the monolithic megacities of the US and East Asia upon which so much of our urban thinking is based, we need a better understanding of the regional approach adopted by mid-sized towns and cities right across continental Europe and the role of collaborative leadership in such places.
In practice this means a return to regions, not as top-down, Whitehall-driven administrations but instead as bottom-up collaborations of combined authorities, Local Enterprise Partnerships and wider business and community interests who can pull together regional spatial strategies of the kind that drive innovation and investment in some of Europe’s most successful regions. In February, the RSA and its One Powerhouse partners will publish a set of regional blueprints that will give a clear indication of how this can work.
Passing power to the people
Boris Johnson’s ‘People’s Government’ has much work to do to live up to such a moniker if it is not to go the way of David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ before it. Leave voters in the North and elsewhere of course want to sever ties with Brussels but the idea that people might “Take Back Control” has always had a deeper resonance too. In a recent survey carried out by Populus for the RSA, over two thirds of Northerners said that they believed the North would be more prosperous if there was more decision-making at the regional level – only 4 per cent disagreed. But concrete plans for devolution never seem to capture the public imagination. We sense what’s wrong, but not what to do about it.
If regional rebalancing is to be sustained, it must be supported by a detailed and sustained programme of devolution. Talk of ‘levelling-up’ will be welcomed by those local authorities that have yet to secure ‘devolution deals’ but a serious approach requires a government that will look beyond such a partial and piecemeal approach and contemplate a more comprehensive settlement as part of the so-called Brexit dividend. As the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission showed, it is only when economic, social and environmental policy is devolved in sync that combined authorities will be able to drive forward local inclusive economies.
But passing power to the people must go deeper still. The real opportunities of place-based policy making lie in unlocking the potential for local social innovation. All around the world, smart cities are leading the way when it comes to transforming day-to-day quality of life: from green streets to self-managed teams in adult social care; from Cities of Learning to digital co-operatives, it is so often these place-based often hyper-local experiments that are at the forefront of social change. National governments of any political persuasion struggle to innovate in this way but by devolving power and finance they can create the conditions in which local and regional social innovation ecosystems can develop and spread. It is high time government unleashed place-based social innovation as a core element of its approach to devolution.
Heritage and identity
Demands for regional rebalancing or to Take Back Control are not only utilitarian. In his recent book on identity, Francis Fukuyama traces the roots of nationalism and other forms of identity politics to ideas of dignity and the need to belong. In Britain, Brexit has become a lightning rod for feelings of nationalistic angst, not least in those post-industrial places which yearn for more successful bygone years. But regional identification is as strong as nationalism for many living outside the South East of England and has the scope to offer a more progressive narrative. In recent polling carried out by the RSA in advance of the general election, 3 out of 4 Northerners agreed with the statement that there is a big difference between the north and other regions in England. Only 6 per cent disagreed.
Notions of national and regional identity are very often seen as fixed to a particular history of a place or places: a heritage around which geographical communities can find common cause. Ideas about northern identity can be traced back as far as the 5th Century and the ‘grittiness’ associated with the rock and rain of the natural landscape. But for the past 200 years to be Northern has been inextricably linked with the processes of industrialisation and its recent decline: hard-working, determined, communal while at the same time rather blunt, even simple-minded. These were always tropes but they served a useful function both to those who identified with them and those who sought to use them for political and economic purposes.
But identities are of course much more contingent and fluid than any historical account normally allows. To quote Oli Bentley, whose These Northern Types project has explored contemporary expressions of Northern identity, “the gap between the well-worn tropes and stereotypes and the modern, globalised north I live in felt too large to ignore.” New regional identities are on the rise. Ideas like the Northern Powerhouse – and its corollary the People’s Powerhouse – continue to capture the imagination of the media and The Yorkshire Party secured nearly 30,000 votes across 28 constituencies in the general election – its most successful election yet.
Any progressive account of the future of England needs to take issues of identity, dignity and belonging far more seriously. Tired arguments about the relationship between Englishness and Britishness need to be animated with a more sophisticated understanding of more fluid local and regional identities and, in the North of England in particular, more work needs to be done on defining that modern, diverse, globalised north that harks back to its heritage but looks forward to once again becoming the economic, social and democratic innovation lab for the world.
Every region, every town and every city needs a forward-looking account of its role in post-Brexit Britain. It is not enough to trade on some homogenous notion of what it means to be English or British. This is where both London and Scotland have raced ahead with contemporary visions of their place in the world and a progressive politics that supports them. England’s regions must now be given the freedom to follow suit.
With both of the main Westminster parties recognising the need for a new focus on England’s regions, it is important they learn from past mistakes and adopt a long-term, principled approach.