Nick Cohen

Boris’s Red Wall is crumbling before his eyes

Boris's Red Wall is crumbling before his eyes
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What is the North? Where is the North? Does it start at Stoke-on-Trent and Derby or at Chesterfield and Runcorn? Even when you get into the unquestionable north, it is full of divisions between Liverpool and Manchester, Lancashire and Yorkshire, Newcastle and Sunderland. It’s no more packed with men in cloth caps than the south is packed with merchant bankers.

If you put your mind to it, you can analyse northernness out of existence. And yet it exists, as surely as the short 'a' in bath. You hear northern defiance, and the perennial suspicion that the south barely thinks the north worth condescending to, everywhere now. You heard it when Andy Burnham said the government was treating the north with ‘contempt…and it's my job to stand up to it’. Burnham is not only the mayor of Manchester; he was secretary of state for health in 2010. You need only glance at the current incumbent to know it would be better for us if Burnham were secretary of state for health today.

An insolent government still treated him as if the health of Manchester was not his concern. ‘I have been having discussions with ministers this week and at no point did somebody say 'we are closing all hospitality in the north of England on Monday,’ he said on 8 October. ‘So what's the point, you ask yourself, of having those discussions if they are not going to be honest with us and you have to read it in a newspaper late at night?’

You can hear it when Lisa Nandy said northerners believe government is ‘actively working against us,’ and added that she had not ‘felt anger like this towards [a Conservative] government since I was growing up here in the 1980s.’ 

I could make an easy gibe and say a Johnson administration that cannot bring itself to listen to Conservative MPs can hardly be expected to listen to their Labour counterparts. But Nandy’s comparison with her (and my) youth in the north west ought to frighten Tories. 

All generalisations about the North are dubious, and it certainly wasn’t true that socialism covered the region in the 1980s. When Margaret Thatcher won her first landslide victory in June 1983, she took seats from Labour in Bradford, Ellesmere Port, Dewsbury, Barrow and Furness, Nottingham and Derby. 

By the end of the decade, the Conservatives were seen as the anti-northern (and anti-Scottish and anti-Welsh) party by millions who previously gave it a hearing: not only because so much of manufacturing went under on their watch, but also because redundant workers received nowhere near enough support. With the exception of the work in Liverpool by Michael Heseltine, the only Conservative minister to emerge with honour from the 1980s in my view, the Thatcher governments did not throw themselves into the task of retraining unemployed men and women and encouraging new business.

They abandoned the depressed regions of the north. Perhaps the dockyards, pits and factories had no future, but there was nothing inevitable about the state’s neglect once they closed. Abandonment was a political choice.

It might seem fanciful to compare Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson. Thatcher knew her own mind. Johnson is such a mess one wonders whether he has a mind to know. Burnham, Steve Rotheram in Liverpool and Labour politicians across the north are, however, putting forward arguments today that are familiar to anyone who remembers the Thatcher years.

Rishi Sunak is making what I think will come to be seen as the greatest mistake of the Johnson administration by withdrawing support for workers and businesses before the virus is under control. Before, indeed, the government has the smallest hope of bringing the virus under control, as this morning’s reports of ministers refusing to accept their own scientists’ advice suggests.

Northern leaders are warning about London imposing a ‘lockdown on the cheap’. The national furlough is set at 80 per cent of wages. But because Sunak is prematurely withdrawing it, northern workers who can't work will have to subsist on 67 per cent of their income. How are they to do that if they are on the minimum wage? What about the businesses, not only in hospitality, which aren’t going to keep workers on any wage, but are going bust?

I’d get used to hearing these questions because, when the furlough ends, they will be everywhere. As in the 1980s, the complaint is that the north is being abandoned by the elite, the toffs, the southerners, by them down there, who don’t think about us or care about us and, when they are forced to turn their dainty noses northwards, do not even have the courtesy to tell us what they intend to do to us.

If this language sounds familiar, it is because it is the language the Brexit right used to justify pushing Britain towards a terrible Brexit deal or no deal at all. In vain did people like me point out that the great cities of the north had voted remain; that much of the leave vote came from southern Tories; and that the government’s own impact assessments showed that the north and Midlands would take the hardest hits. 

As with all successful political myths, there was just enough truth in the story of metropolitan liberals disdaining the northern working class for the story to have legs. Now the word 'elite' must be directed towards where it always should have been directed: at the people in actual power.

The real costs of Brexit will start accruing after 1 January, when we will still be in a pandemic, and when much of the north will have been in varying degrees of lockdown for months without end. You can already see how the spokesmen and women for the north are no longer Red Wall Tories, who cannot criticise their own government too harshly, but Labour MPs and mayors. The crisis has established Lisa Nandy and Andy Burnham as national figures, or re-established in Burnham’s case, and brought on Steve Rotheram and other Labour politicians, who were previously unknown outside their cities.

We may look back and say Johnson, Hancock and Sunak managed to lose the north for the Tories in a couple of weeks. When the crisis came, the party of the Red Wall had nothing to offer Conservative northern voters or any other northern voters. They did what they were always going to do: reverted to type and became the party of the south again.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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