Last month, I wrote about a new campaign group set up by Labour MPs called “Labour for the North”. Comprising of Labour MPs from across the three northern regions, we have formed this group with a view to speaking with one voice to ensure our vision for a better opportunities, increased investment and reduced inequalities in the North are delivered.
The North has borne the brunt of this government’s austerity policies with a £3.6bn cut in public spending, while the South saw a £4.7bn rise in real terms during the same period. Compared to London, public sector jobs have fallen. Spending on transport rose by more than twice as much in London as in the North. Weekly pay has gone up by £7 a week less than the national average and there has been a huge increase in the number of jobs in the North that pay less than the living wage. Scandalously, there are 200,000 more children living in poor households than there were five years ago, meaning there are now 800,000 children living in poverty in the north of England. Using GVA per head figures show that the North/South gap has actually increased over the last few decades.
The figures, whichever way they are presented, show a stark challenge for not only the new Prime Minister but also for subsequent administrations. They don’t even do justice to the feeling many have in the North that we are the poor relation when it comes to the big decisions in this country. But even if the next Prime Minister talks about greater priority for the North (and Boris Johnson has talked about having a minister for the North attend cabinet), talk is not going to do the job. The record of the Tories with the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is one large on rhetoric but small on delivery. Often the label is tagged on to initiatives that are happening already, resulting in a tick box/soundbite mentality that fails to deliver the long-term leadership needed and fails to restore the damage done by austerity.
Labour has come up with some excellent policy proposals in this area in recent weeks. In particular, John McDonnell’s announcement that parts of the Treasury will be devolved to the North is a hugely significant intervention and will hopefully change the mindset of the Mandarins. You might ask whether the North needs leadership from Westminster given the devolution agenda has enabled some areas to move ahead with greater ownership of their own decisions, particularly with elected mayors. There have been some great examples of mayors in the North setting out a clear identity and agenda, but mayors don’t cover everywhere, their powers and resources are largely determined by London, and the patchwork of powers epitomise the piecemeal approach that has been adopted over many years. It still feels we are always begging for crumbs from the table as part of the bidding culture government adopt. There have also been recent concerns that the Chairs of Northern LEPs banding together as the “NP11” could lead to an unaccountable, undemocratic body becoming responsible for many millions of pounds of expenditure.
What is needed is a clear political lead, which is why at our first meeting of Labour for the North we unanimously agreed that we should be advocating for the creation in the party of a specific role: shadow minister for the North, whose job it would be to advocate for the needs of the North and test party and government policy against those needs. Not only would that hopefully help bring a political focus to the clear aims of the group, but it would also send a message to the millions of Labour voters in the North whose support we need to have a Labour government that we in power would end the years of division and that in future prosperity would be spread more evenly throughout the UK.