My career in politics nearly ended the day it began, when I was almost run over by a gang of Nazis in a Mini-Metro. Not a very butch car to be hit by, I know, and a rather pathetic substitute for a Panzer tank. But it was the early 1990s, and supporters of fascist government in Britain had seen their resources dwindle a bit over the decades.
I was 14, and attending my first political demonstration, an Anti-Nazi League protest against the BNP in Halifax. I became separated from the crowd. There were some hooligans from the other side screeching around in a car yelling abuse and doing handbrake turns and, as I ran down a street away from them, they drove the car up onto the pavement behind me. I thought I was about to be mown down, but at the last minute they swerved back on to the road and roared past. Several pasty-looking middle fingers were extended in my general direction.
It was an interesting introduction to the strange politics you can get in some small northern towns. You get weird politics when people don’t know where to turn — and I think that’s what’s going on up north at the moment.
David Cameron inherited lots of political baggage from the 1980s which makes it tough for the Tories to win a hearing in northern cities. The Liberal Democrats used to run in the north of England in opposition to complacent Labour councils. Now they are trying to avoid being minced for joining the coalition. And after the recession and the debt crisis Gordon Brown left behind, northerners don’t feel so enthusiastic about Labour either.
Hence, politically, some strange things are happening. First George Galloway gets elected in Bradford. Then John Prescott didn’t get elected in Humberside — even though it’s a traditional Labour heartland. This week we learned that Rotherham council thinks it’s OK to take children away from foster parents because they support Ukip, and the subsequent row has further poisoned an already nasty by-election. Labour is locked into a dirty tricks row with the far-left Respect party, after Asian areas were targeted with leaflets claiming Labour were ‘closet racists’. In the run-up to the vote lurid stories about grooming and ‘Asian sex gangs’ have stoked tensions between communities, creating the perfect opportunity for the rabble–rousers of the BNP and EDL.
Even within Labour, there are tensions. Many local party activists in Rotherham wanted to select a councillor called Mahroof Hussain as their candidate. But he was excluded from the shortlist drawn up by Labour’s national HQ, which says it wants a ‘clean break’ with the history of local politics in the area. Perhaps because, in the Bradford by-election, Labour had picked a popular local councillor — and George Galloway then used his links with the council to pummel him. This time, Labour doesn’t want to take any risks.
It isn’t just Rotherham where voters are feeling distinctly unenthusiastic about the main parties. The two seats with the two lowest turnouts at the last general election were Manchester Central and Leeds Central. In fact, of the ten English seats with the lowest turnout, nine are in the North.
There’s huge cynicism about politics everywhere in the country, but its potency in the North is something Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband are struggling to deal with.
For example, an almighty 83 per cent of northern voters think that ‘politicians don’t understand the real world at all’. Only 16 per cent of northern voters think that Britain’s future will be better than its past, while 60 per cent disagree. The concerns of Westminster politics can seem very distant. The majority of northern voters (but not southern voters) think that ‘so-called green policies are mostly a waste of money’.
The Labour government of 1997 was freighted with huge expectations everywhere — but nowhere was the subsequent disappointment greater than in the North. Labour’s support among working-class voters fell by a fifth when it was in government. Ed Miliband’s election as party leader has left the party with a major problem in what is supposed to be its heartland. A focus group run by Policy Exchange found some wondering if they still recognise the Labour party. ‘You spend your time at Oxford, then spend time being a research assistant for someone in parliament… It’s all out of a book, isn’t it?’ In his party conference speech this year Miliband was forced to major on the fact that he had been at a comprehensive — precisely because voters assume that he is another southern public school boy.
The North-South gap has, of course, been a factor of British public life for decades. In the 1920s and 1930s it was northern towns, reliant on staple industries like coal, shipbuilding and weaving, that bore the brunt of the recession. The South and Midlands enjoyed a ‘metroboom’ as ribbon development of suburbs sliced through the Home Counties, and new industries like cars and chemicals located down south. George Orwell described the growing gap, contrasting the ‘lunar landscape of slagheaps’ in the North, with the new factories in the south: ‘glittering white structures of concrete, glass, and steel’.
After the war, extreme measures were adopted to force industry out of the south. Firms wanting to expand in areas of low unemployment required permission to do so. And in the early 1960s, a fifth of applications from firms wanting to expand in the south-east were refused. But the gap continued to widen. The shift from shipping to a road-based economy favoured towns on the new motorway network and hammered port towns. Steady southward migration over decades meant that the share of the population living in the North and Midlands shrank from the war onwards, from more than a third in 1945 to about a quarter now.
Meanwhile, 1970s northern towns saw huge changes. Glorious civic architecture was ripped down to make way for brutal new blocks. New migrants arrived — particularly into traditional textile areas — just as the industries they came to work in started to collapse. Decades of mismanagement and mistaken policies came home to roost in the 1980s. The miners’ strike added to the sense of division. The number of miners actually fell much faster in the years before the Thatcher government than during her time in office. The 1984 strike was sparked by a plan to shut 20 uneconomic pits; Harold Wilson’s first government had shut around 300.
But such details didn’t matter. The strike created an image of division — and regional kulturkampf — which was hammered home by Thatcher’s political opponents. In the 1987 election Gordon Brown pounded away relentlessly on the idea that the Tories were a cruel gang of southerners who didn’t care about the North. ‘Regional divisions are now more marked than ever before,’ he argued; the Tories had ‘attacked the North’ and ‘systematically destroyed’ its economy. It wasn’t subtle stuff. It was a powerful attempt to stamp Labour’s flag on the North. It worked.
Much good it did them. Only now, two years after Labour left office, has its record in the North become clear. Under New Labour, the economic divide was made wider than ever; my home county of Yorkshire went from being 10 per cent behind the UK average in 1997 to being 17 per cent behind. The economic output of financial services in London has now overtaken the entire north-east’s economy. Not London’s economy as a whole, but just one industry — concentrated in one square mile — has come to generate more wealth than a whole region of 2.6 million people.
The much-hullabalooed regional development agencies and a welter of other schemes failed to turn the tide. The plans ranged from the dull to the almost comically inept. Yorkshire’s agency sponsored a high-concept plan to turn Barnsley into a ‘Tuscan hill village’. Then came ‘Prezzagrad’, the plan to create a futuristic ‘super city’ running the length of the M62 — it ran into one small problem: the Pennines.
Meanwhile, London extended its educational advantage while the North was left behind. Figures out this week named the councils with the most failing schools. Fourteen of the worst 20 were northern councils. In Barnsley, only a fifth of kids go to secondary schools which the government considers acceptable.
If northern voters feel abandoned by all three parties now, there is a reason: to deal with a problem, you must first understand the problem. And over the decades there has been precious little sign of this from Westminster politicians or northern council leaders. Politicians have failed because they tried, unrealistically, to ignore the market forces driving today’s economy.
The education gap is the most urgent problem, because skills are the main determinant of an area’s long-term growth. Ministers and northern councils should move heaven and earth to lure in the most successful chains of academies — like ARK and Harris — to turn around their failing schools. They need money to expand, and councils would be much better spending their money helping turn schools around than building costly vanity projects (why do all northern councils want to build a tram?). Alternatively, the most disastrous councils could become educational enterprise zones, in which profit-seeking schools would be allowed to set up in areas where the state has failed.
The North can gain advantage where it offers something the South doesn’t. Take Preston. It was a surprising boom town, achieving the third-fastest rate of private sector job creation in England during the first ten years of Labour. Why? Failed plans for ‘Central Lancashire New Town’ left behind loads of land with planning permission agreed — making it the ideal place to locate a new business. When the South is being sniffy about building in its green and pleasant vales, the North should turn southern nimbyism to its advantage. Local pay bargaining may help too: salaries more in keeping with those paid locally can allow organisations like the NHS to hire more people. Letting people turn empty shops into housing could tidy up rundown town centres in the North. There are lots of opportunities if we work with, not against, market forces.
When I was growing up in the North, I looked around at the evidence of its former glories. The amazing town halls, public libraries and great houses. But there is something depressingly nostalgic about all that. It’s frustrating because the North has so much going for it now: the best music, the most beautiful countryside, great, characterful cities, and (unlike in London) the opportunity to live in a house bigger than a shoebox.
Westminster politicians have repeatedly promised to close the North-South gap, but failed because they ignored economic reality, and flushed our money away on stupid gimmicks. No wonder northern voters think politicians ignore them and don’t understand them. Unless we change direction, it’s going to become ever harder to refer honestly to ‘one nation’: because our country will steadily come apart.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 1 December 2012