This morning there was a slew of good news. Employment is up and unemployment is down. And although there are still palpable weaknesses in the UK economy (too many people trapped in part-time work, stagnating wages, high youth unemployment and long-term unemployment) there has clearly been a return to both growth and jobs. How the Labour Party negotiates that without looking like we’re moving the goalposts is likely to be at the heart of Britain’s economic debate between now and the next election.
Yet there are huge swathes of the country for whom the idea of a “recovery” is laughable. Whilst unemployment may have fallen by 125,00 across the UK, in the North West it’s down just 6,000. In Yorkshire, male unemployment may have fallen by 12,000 in the last quarter, but female unemployment is up by 9% in the last year alone. And in the North East, unemployment may have fallen by 3,000 but the unemployment rate is still 10% – nearly double the unemployment rate of the South East (5.1%).
As has been the case in the past, it seems the economic recovery is subject to huge variations across the country. The North failed to reap the largest benefits of the boom years, and was hit hard by the bust years regardless. Now during the recovery, the North is being left behind again.
Contrast the unemployment level of the North East with Wales, for example. Whilst the North East still suffers from double-digit unemployment, Welsh unemployment is now lower than the UK average. That’s in no small part due to the work done by Welsh Labour in the Welsh Assembly. Greater autonomy for an area which might otherwise feel abandoned and ignored under a Tory administration in Westminster has provided a bulwark between the people of Wales and the London and South East-centric growth agenda of the coalition government. Devolution to Scotland has had a similarly powerful effect, and provides a similar bulwark (as much as I may dislike the current incumbent of Holyrood’s top job).
Sadly, regional assemblies – which could have provided Britain with a more authentically federal state, devolved power more easily down to local communities and allowed regions to flourish on their own terms – are off the agenda. The North East Regional Assembly was roundly rejected ten years ago by a 7/2 margin. I was one of those who voted in favour – but I’ve no particular appetite to return to that debate again. The North East has one of Britain’s greatest regional identities, and yet the argument for “more government” (as it was seen at the time) was still impossible to win.
But as our country becomes more polarised, not less, and as a recovery so slanted towards specific regions of the country begins to take hold, some form of regional autonomy is going to be necessary if any sort of devolved One Nation agenda is going to take hold. The only alternative is for the North to continue to be crushed under the weight of a recovery that leaves them behind. And why would anyone vote for that?