Professor Paul Salveson MBE (General Secretary, Hannah Mitchell Foundation)
The political shape of the United Kingdom is changing rapidly and the North risks losing out. The debate over Scottish independence is only the most obvious sign of a major shift, together with last year’s 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 a democratic deficit, there is increasing evidence that the ‘North-South Divide’ is back with a vengeance. Research by Newcastle-based think-tank 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 held a well-attended public launch in Bradford earlier this year. It has excited mixed views; some politicians who supported calls for regional devolution in the last Labour Government have yet to recover from 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’re drawing support from across the North of England and 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 by local authorities struggling to maintain existing services, nor the new, but grossly under-funded Local Enterprise Partnerships, on their own. 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.
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. 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’.
The Hannah Mitchell Foundation has been formed to build support for regional devolution within the centre-left, which includes Greens, Liberal Democrats and non-aligned socialists as well as Labour supporters. 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. A ‘Council for the North’?
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. 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.
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!