While Westminster continues to convulse over Brexit, two events last week demonstrated that in a post-Brexit Britain “taking back control” is a far-cry from signing off a Withdrawal Agreement.
Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse project has all but stalled. With a government preoccupied by Brexit negotiations and a Chancellor holding tightly to the purse strings, transport chaos prevails around and between our great cities of the North and there’s little talk of further devolution. But somehow the energy and momentum unleashed by the narrative of a new, more confident Northern sensibility carries on regardless. This was characterised by two very well-attended events last week where civil society and social enterprise came together under a Northern banner to celebrate and to plan.
The People’s Powerhouse conference in Bradford, which had its roots in a protest against the all-male line-ups that had come to characterise the Northern Powerhouse, pulled together a gently anarchic band of social entrepreneurs, community activists, frustrated local government policy-makers, public health and housing practitioners, artists, poets and more. It was based around workshops and plenaries designed to share stories and practical tools to support social action and the energy for change and it launched a new charter of the kind of values and behaviours that might shape a more inclusive and prosperous North.
Northern Power Futures, organised by self-styled Northern Power Woman Simone Roche, was held in a giant warehouse space in Manchester Central and declared itself an ‘open forum’ with conference stands separated by garden fences to encourage chatting between neighbours and open stage, open-mic style sessions allowing visitors to graze and participate at will.
In both cases, grandstanding politicians were few and far between. Panels were replaced by more interactive activities and energy levels escalated as a result. But digging deeper, these conferences were far more than a triumph of participatory process, they carried substance that should make traditional politics sit up and think.
First, there were bold assertions of a rights-based agenda. This is being led by a growing number of young people who are beginning to mobilise around their Northern identity. MYP’s spoke passionately about mayors introducing votes at 16 in Northern city-regions, for which a plenary straw-poll suggested there was near-unanimous support across all age-groups, and students from a number of Northern universities launched their own Northern Policy Forum. In another session, Elaine Speight from UCLAN highlighted examples of grassroots action on the environment in Lancashire, Sheffield and the North East where people were resisting development in cases where there was inadequate consideration of social and environmental benefits. Citing Lefebvre and RSA favourite David Harvey, she argued that this wasn’t about having a voice in the Northern Powerhouse debate, it was about claiming our rights to the North we all share: “the right to change ourselves, by changing the cities we live in”.
There was a lot of discussion about the democratic process. Edna Robinson, chair of Trafford Housing Trust and the People’s Powerhouse steering group, spoke powerfully of the need for gentle, gracious and generous conversations about the future of our economy. She spoke of a “decent and dignified way to exert influence” while not ducking the gritty problems or “edgy approaches” that characterize Northern politics. Sarah Longlands, Director of IPPR North, talked about the lessons of the sectarian politics of Northern Ireland and the need for a united, inclusive participative politics in the North. And there was great awareness of - and appetite for - the more deliberative forms of democracy advocated by the RSA and now being used in Ireland, Canada and beyond. Roll on a Northern Citizens Assembly.
Second, the rights-based, citizen-centred take on an emerging Northern politics is just one sign of a growing sense of Northern agency and autonomy. In spite of the misery induced by a decade of austerity and its iniquitous consequences, that stereotypical Northern ‘grit’ was evident all around. Countless community organisations and social enterprises presented their latest initiatives to combat mental health issues, welcome the stranger or invest in dilapidated ‘assets’.
There is nothing especially ‘Northern’ about any of these initiatives other than in the solidaristic sense that here we are suffering more, here we have seen deeper cuts, and that we’ve been here before. A cynic might say that David Cameron is getting his Big Society by the back door, a more careful observer would notice that as central government turns off the tap, so it diminishes its agency. Listening to the likes of Kersten England and Jo Miller, chief executives of Bradford and Doncaster councils respectively, local government may have been bled dry but its resourcefulness and innovation knows no bounds. Central government is becoming less and less relevant to their plans for a revived civic municipalism tied to strengthening regional co-operation. Contributions from the metro mayors of Manchester and Liverpool suggested a similar resolve to tackle local problems from the bottom up.
The third revealing development is in the more conscious and concerned expression of Northern regional identity. In recent years there has been lively debate about the whys and wherefores of local and regional identity. Some have asserted there’s no such thing as ‘the North’. Parochial animosities, North Eastern isolationism and the War of the Roses have all been held up as good reasons why a pan-Northern civic or political identification is impossible. But political identification quite easily accommodates diversity when it can establish a common cause.
This was exemplified by the exuberant People’s Powerhouse poet-in-residence, Tony Walsh. His poem, Poppadums and Custard, brilliantly captured the unity-in-diversity of what it means to be Northern and From Up ‘Ere is an honest appraisal that our Northern Powerhouse is neither the turnaround success that Brand Manchester or the Great Exhibition of the North tries to spin but nor is it the post-industrial wasteland some southerners might assume.
His greatest offering though was not his own composition but a Powerhouse Haiku - a warrior poem - compiled from the contributions of short verses from all participants at the conference. Our six minute co-creation concluded as follows:
All over the North, enough is enough,
Because we matter, we do.
Shout up together, lads and lasses,
Because we’re Northern and proud.
Sick of politics, marginalizing the North,
Time for a real change.
Where are the people in the policy of today?
Shout loud, stand tall, bellow.
Heads and hearts and minds,
We’re the backbone of England,
The North standing tall.
In Morecambe, we’re wise,
In Sheffield, we’re made of steel,
In Blackpool, we are made of rock.
Launching our charter,
Northern voices speaking up.
Rebels, radicals, the North keeps changing the world,
We will do it again.
Like our great rivers, Ribble, Mersey, Tyne and Wear,
People’s Powerhouse together we’re powerful.
This is our time.
As the nights draw in and the gloom of Brexit foreshadows the nation, a Northern star is shining. It is not bright. It is not guaranteed to last. It is anything but. But those kindling it have a sense of something different, a new economy, a new democracy, a welfare society and they believe in their own agency to make it real. As the Chartists, the Rochdale Pioneers, the Suffragettes and many more besides have shown, Northerners know how to do paradigm change and the people are slowly and quietly taking back control of the Powerhouse.