Where now for the North and regionalism in 2018?

This thought-piece is very much work in progress and is a contribution to the debate on how a progressive regionalism can develop in our highly-centralised patch of ground that is ‘England’. Progressive regionalism stands for democratic devolution to regions which have strong identities and reflect geographies that make economic and political sense too. The failure of some regionalist thinking in the past has been to ignore the huge importance of cultural identity, which I’ll return to. But where regionalists of all hues can agree is the need for a strong tier of government between the very local and the national.

As things stand, ‘local’ government has virtually ceased to exist: the super-councils that have been foisted on people since re-organisation in the 1970s have no real local resonance – they are too big to be ‘local’ but too small to be ‘regional’ and strategic. Even the ‘combined authorities’ – another undemocratic development – are generally too small to function effectively as regions. They, and the ‘super councils’ on which they are based, should be scrapped and replaced by a network of truly local authorities which reflect real identities and today’s economic and social realities.

What does all this mean for The North? This paper is very much focused on The North – Yorkshire, the North-east and the North-West – rather than England as a whole. There is a need for a regional settlement across England but that is beyond the scope of this paper. As things stand, the strongest support for regionalism is within the North, and that is where it could make the most impact economically and politically. But clearly you can’t simply look at ‘The North’ in isolation and the long-term vision should be of a Federal Britain that brings in the English regions with Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, somehow, the Irish Republic. My own view is that this should be within the EU, not outside it. But if we do go down the Brexit road and it becomes irreversible, a Federal Britain with friendly ties to the EU, including being part of the Single Market and Customs Union, is the way to go. All sounds all a bit far-fetched? Perhaps – but. We are in a very rapidly changing world and it is the right time to be radical.

The results of the recent Barnsley and Doncaster councils-sponsored referenda on devolution options makes very interesting reading for supporters of democratic regionalism in the North. On an admittedly low turnout (24% in Barnsley and 20% in Doncaster), about 85% of those asked opted for the ‘one Yorkshire’ approach. But that still represents nearly 39,000 people in Doncaster and 34,000 in Barnsley who supported the ‘one Yorkshire’ approach.

This isn’t what the Government wants to hear, nor is it very attractive to some Labour ‘modernisers’ who are fixated on city-regions, which clearly have little support amongst real people. The fact is that people feel strongly about their identities which can stretch many generations or be much more recent. People have a very strong identity as ‘Yorkshire’, not to an artificial city region. That isn’t to say they also have identities based on their towns and cities, such as Barnsley, Doncaster or indeed Sheffield. It works on different levels. People’s identities are multi-layered and can extend from the very local neighbourhood to towns and cities, counties, regions, nations and indeed continents. Having a strong identity as ‘Yorkshire’ need not make you hostile to the idea of being British, or European. At the same time it doesn’t imply hostility to other regions (the Yorkshire-Lancashire rivalry has long been more of a friendly joke between cousins!). Where it all starts to get nasty is when unscrupulous politicians incite hatred, typically around a perverted view of national identity which is usually narrow and exclusive. It’s interesting that regionalism tends not to be exclusive whilst some nationalism – particularly the ‘English’ variant – can be. Again, I’ve often argued with English friends that the nationalism of small nations (e.g. Wales, Scotland, Ireland) is quite different from that of big nations with long imperial histories. Trying to harness ‘English nationalism’ for progressive political ends is doomed to failure and will always pull its proponents to the right. Regionalism, I would argue, is far more often a progressive force of the centre-left. If you take the trouble to look at what English regionalist parties say (Yorkshire Party, North-east party, Wessex Regionalists) it’s a sort of moderate centre-left progressivism which is generally pro-Europe and inclusive.

The mainstream political parties in England don’t really get ‘regionalism’. The Liberal Democrats did at one time but it now seems to have forgotten. The Greens, for all their commitment to grassroots democracy, seem lukewarm towards it. Labour has dallied with the idea, and still does, but it isn’t on the Corbyn agenda, which is a pity. But on one level, that’s no bad thing for my friends in The Yorkshire Party. The results of the Barnsley and Doncaster referenda show that the ‘Yorkshire’ identity is strong and they are well placed to pick that up and channel it politically. I hope they do well. Its leader, Stewart Arnold, comes from a ‘social Liberal’ background but the party has also recruited from both Labour and Conservative. His recent speech to YP’s annual conference makes interesting reading and is here http://www.yorkshireparty.org.uk/sa_speech_conf2017 .

Another very interesting development in Yorkshire is the ‘Same Skies’ movement, mainly centred on West Yorkshire. This is a much looser and radical initiative than a formal political party. ‘We Share the Same Skies’. Ian Martin says “In many ways Same Skies is a political laboratory in itself. From the beginning we have been open to working with people from all parties and none and we have actively tried to do something to engage a more diverse range of voices….This means being open to different ways of working including videos, photoboards and events based on open models with no fixed agenda and no top table of speeches (such as from MPs or council leaders) so enabling all participants to suggest themes and discussions with equal value.” (https://www.thealternative.org.uk/dailyalternative/2017/3/15/wesharethesameskies). The North East Party has similar values to the Yorkshire Party. Hilton Dawson on its website says “The North East Party is a progressive and democratic political party which is committed to improving the lives and increasing the opportunities of the people of North East England. We campaign for fair taxation, the fair distribution of national resources and the provision of world class public services which are fully accountable to North East people through empowering regional devolution, accountable local governance and effective representation in the UK and European Parliaments”.

I have to say that the ‘Same Skies’ approach appeals to me more than a traditional political party model, though the two could co-exist and support each other, without ‘same Skies’ becoming tied to any one party. This approach has relevance to other regions and could certainly work in Lancashire. Which is where I want to turn now. Why hasn’t Lancashire produced a similar political development as we’ve seen in Yorkshire, and in the North-east? Part of it is because ‘Lancashire’ has been so mashed up by re-organisation, usually against people’s wishes, or with little or no consultation. Whatever the politicians and officers might think, ‘Greater Manchester’, which stole a huge chunk of traditional ‘Lancashire’, has never been a popular identity.

Manchester yes, Bolton, Oldham, Rochdale and Wigan certainly. But not ‘Greater Manchester’. And this is why ultimately all the good intentions of Andy Burnham will fail because there is not the strong sense of identity with it, in much the same way that the people of Barnsley and Doncaster felt precious little identity with ‘Sheffield City Region’. I suspect that most people in ‘Greater Manchester’, particularly places like Rochdale, Oldham, Leigh, Bolton, Bury and the like still identify as ‘Lancastrian’ and would like to return to the historic country. This was shown at a workshop recently when people were given various options for what ‘region’ they’d like to lie in. Lancashire – or ‘Greater Lancastria’ – came out tops.

Does this apply to Merseyside? I think that’s more difficult. Maybe on the periphery it does in places like St Helens and parts of Sefton – certainly Southport. But Merseyside has always had a strong sense of its own regional identity. And then there’s ‘Lancashire North of the Sands’ – that area of old Lancashire which includes Ulverston and Barrow. It’s now ‘Cumbria’ and that kind of makes geographical sense, but again people’s identities remain, in many cases, strongly pro-Lancashire.  Could a ‘Cumbrian’ Same Skies movement develop a politicised sense of ‘Cumbria-ness’? Not sure.

What about a ‘North-West’ identity? This is the classic response from the technocratic regionalists and it has some value. There are or have been ‘North-West’ regional bodies, including the former regional development agency, health organisations and plenty more. Recently, there was a suggestion to form a ‘North-West Party’ that could mirror the work of the Yorkshire and North-east parties. On one level it make sense, but for one thing: nobody identifies as ‘North-Western’. You might identify as Lancastrian, or Cumbrian, but I’ve never met anyone say “I’m a North-Westerner”. It just doesn’t sound right.

This is where the idea of ‘One North’ starts to become attractive. The Northern Party still exists and stood some candidates in the 2015 election, but didn’t do that well, despite some very good, progressive policies. My own view has been that in those parts of ‘The North’ which don’t include the North-East and Yorkshire, a ‘Northern Party’ is a better bet than a ‘Lancashire Party’, a ‘Cumbrian Party’ and a ‘Merseyside Party’. Cheshire? It shouldn’t be in competition with the North-East and Yorkshire Parties, and should collaborate with them on some shared policies, including some pan-Northern approaches. Some things work best on a pan-northern basis and we already have ‘Transport for the North’ (TfN) which works on a strategic level and is absorbing ‘Rail North’. My own view is that TfN could become a much more effective body as it matures. Why not look at examples where other regional governments actually operate trains and feeder buses? Euskotren in the Basque Country does just that – it’s an arms-length enterprise with a large degree of commercial freedom, but is owned by the community and is accountable to elected regional government.

The big problem with bodies like TfN is that they are unaccountable. They have some limited oversight by elected politicians, but politicians elected to represent relatively small districts, not to take on major strategic regional responsibilities.

There needs to be a ‘Northern’ dimension to the regionalist debate. At the same time, we can’t ignore the enduring strength of identities for Yorkshire and the North-east, but also Lancashire, Merseyside and Cumbria. To harmonise these regional interests needs a lot of debate and friendly discussion which recognises the following:

  • That ‘The North’ unites the 15.5 people living in its constituent regions and there is a strong community of interest
  • This community of interest has a broad common identity as ‘Northern’ which doesn’t cut across more regional identities of ‘Yorkshire, ‘Lancashire’ etc.
  • Some things – railways, policing, health and some other services are best delivered on a pan-northern basis

So what are the practical implications? This may sound daft but ‘The North’ probably would work best as a nation within a Federal Britain, with constituent regions for the North-east, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Merseyside and Cumbria. We’re a long way off that but even the most unlikely scenario may become possible in the mess that will be post-Brexit Britain.

In the medium term, good luck to the regionalists across the North. But we must look at ways of working together in a ‘Northern Alliance’ which is mutually supportive and agrees on what could work best on a pan-Northern basis. Take transport as an example. If there were regional assemblies for the five Northern regions they could form a ‘Transport for the North’ board, with seats on a governing body reflecting the population of each constituent. You would have politicians elected for what would be quite large constituencies, as opposed to tiny council wards, who would bring a strategic view to the table. The same could work in policing, health and economic development. This would be a different model to what the Scots and Welsh have, but it would reflect the very different geographical, political and cultural issues in the North of England. Some of the devolved responsibilities that the Scots and Welsh have should go to the regions but some should be shared in a pan-Northern body. There should be links built with other regionalist groups in England as well as Plaid Cymru and the SNP. In summary then:

  • For 2018, there is a lot of fertile ground for supporters of radical regionalism. The overtly regionalist parties – North-East, Yorkshire and Northern – should continue their work and build support
  • Bodies like the ‘Same Skies Collective’ have room to develop – and why not a ‘Same Skies Lancashire’ equivalent?
  • Work to influence the mainstream parties – particularly Labour but also Greens and Liberal Democrats, is of huge importance. Who will do it?
  • There’s a need to develop ideas and policy – the Hannah Mitchell Foundation needs to clarify where it’s going and grow some radical ideas
  • There is a much wider potential network of third-sector organisations based in the North – the embryonic idea of a ‘Northern Umbrella’ should sprout