Sunday, 17 November 2013

Hannah Mitchell Foundation: The North needs its own devolution, not an English parliament

Paul Salveson, Hannah Mitchell Foundation

The accelerating debate in Scotland over independence or further devolution is starting to have an impact south of the border though many on the English left haven’t really woken up to the implications of Scottish independence. The idea of an ‘English’ parliament has gathered some currency though the more you unpick the idea, the more its reactionary nature becomes clear. There is an alternative – real devolution within the English regions and strong links with a self-ruled Scotland and Wales. A federal, democratic Britain.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the centre cannot hold. The political and economic shape of the United Kingdom is changing rapidly. The debate over Scottish independence is only the most obvious sign of a major political shift, together with the overwhelming vote for more powers to be given to the Welsh Government. In addition to Scotland and Wales, both Northern Ireland and London itself now have substantial devolved powers. Only the English regions continue to be dominated by London-based civil servants.

As well as the democratic deficit, there is increasing evidence that the ‘North-South Divide’ is back with a vengeance. Research by IPPR North has shown a widening social and economic divide within England. The North is experiencing higher unemployment, more business failures, lower life expectancy, poorer health and less investment in basic infrastructure such as transport. Spending per head on transport in London is £2600 each year compared with a mere £5 in the North-East. In arts funding, London gets £69 per person per head each year whilst the rest of England gets £4.60 on average. It goes beyond dry statistics, with London absorbing more and more talent and creativity. If you want to get ahead – get a one-way ticket to London.

It’s time to change all that. The Hannah Mitchell Foundation, named in memory of an outstanding Northern working class socialist, feminist and co-operator, is campaigning for a dynamic, sustainable North of England. It sees directly-elected regional government for the North as key to building a new politics which is inclusive and democratic, re-interpreting the traditional socialist values of fellowship and mutual aid which once sunk deep roots in England’s North, as well as in the south Wales valleys and central belt of Scotland. It has excited mixed views; some politicians who supported calls for regional devolution in the last Labour Government have yet to recover from the shock of 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 are not the only part of the UK whose plans for devolution were initially rejected!

And things really have moved on, partly propelled by the debate in Scotland. The Observer recently carried a feature on the impact of Scottish independence and the North of England, quoting yes’ campaigners Stuart McDonald saying “If I lived in North-east England I would be jumping up and down right now demanding regional autonomy.” (“Is a stronger Scotland just what the North of England needs?” November 10th 2013). People are not jumping up and down just yet but there are signs of a shift, both within the Labour Party and wider constituencies. The Foundation’s supporters include politicians as diverse as John Prescott, Jon Cruddas, Louise Ellman and Austin Mitchell. Left-Labour Halifax MP Linda Riordan is the Foundation’s president. It has a growing membership of Greens and non-aligned devolutionaries.

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 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 who are struggling to maintain existing services, nor the 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. At the same time, we need strong, empowered local government which re-connects with people and stimulates and encourages community action.

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 and breed an ugly English nationalism. It may sound quaintly old-fashioned but we need to draw a very clear distinction between the nationalism of large, former imperialist nations such as England and smaller oppressed nations which include Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Those on the left who think there is political gold in promoting a ‘left’ English nationalism will find that it’s fool’s gold. It will inevitably pull to the right, defining itself in opposition and hostility to Wales and Scotland.

The North needs its own voice, as part of a more democratic England within a Federal Britain. And it’s not about being ‘anti-South’ - it’s all about being ‘pro-North’. We welcome discussions with communities in other parts of England, including London, who want to see greater devolution from the centre. We want to build links with activists in Scotland and Wales whose vision of a decentralised, inclusive and co-operative future chimes with our own. Recently, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood speak in Manchester on ‘Re-balancing Britain’. We found much in her speech to agree with. We want to learn from the experience of devolutionaries and progressive nationalists in Wales, Scotland and other parts of Europe.

A new Northern politics has to be not just about government structures but also culture, creativity and doing things differently. As Emma Goldman put it, if we can’t dance to it, it’s not our revolution. Earlier this year we were involved in organising the highly successful ‘Hannah Festival’ in Leeds, which celebrated creativity and innovation in the North. We want to do more stuff like that.

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’? Interest is growing and the Foundation is looking at organising a ‘Northern Convention’ early next year to bring together a much wider cross-section of groups and individuals.

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! We’ll stand a better chance of doing it if we can learn from our friends in other nations and regions within and beyond the UK who have already done it – or are on their way. Yes, let England flourish – but a democratic, re-balanced and inclusive England of the regions.
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Paul’s book Socialism with a Northern Accent, radical traditions for modern times, was published by Lawrence and Wishart price £14.99 (www.lwbooks.co.uk). Paul is a visiting professor at the University of Huddersfield and is General Secretary of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation.

See www.hannahmitchell.org.uk