At the Summat New event in Leeds, a group of 20 people from the North, who had never met before, sat in a circle and asked this question: “Are the voices of people living and working in places in the north of England fairly heard in our national conversation?” Here Andrew Wilson answers the question.
The historians Peter Cain and Anthony Hopkins describe the rise of the gentlemanly capitalist culture of London and the Home Counties. This is the culture that sprung from the need of aristocrats to make lots of money without being seen to work hard, and certainly not to get their hands dirty in manufacturing. Not everyone who lives in the south east is a gentlemanly capitalist of course, by a long way, but almost all of the people who benefit from that culture, live there. As Neil McInroy of CLES put it, The City, Whitehall and Westminster are “joined at the hip” and always have been.
And it doesn’t stop there. Gentlemanly capitalism reaches through all of the soft power networks of personal contacts in the London-based think tanks, media organisations, lobby groups, charities, Transport for London, national museums, company boardrooms, trade union head offices and the rest by which England is run in the absence of an open, transparent, referencable set of rules for governance (a written constitution). This blog post by Adam Leaver of Manchester Business School, describes the effect of gentlemanly capitalism on the capacity of places outside London and the south east to look after themselves.
How can we find the time, the energy and the long term commitment in our everyday lives to overcome all that? If we vote, most of us living in the north vote Labour. Surely the Westminster Labour Party should make our voices heard?
But how can they when the people in the Westminster Labour Party hierarchy have so little lived experience of people and places in the north of England? When so few of them have made their adult life here, lived, worked and raised a family, and will go back to that life when they leave politics? In the words of the Common Weal organisation in Scotland, “Every citizen must face the fact that there is no-one coming to rescue us. It is up to us.”
We are privileged to find ourselves in this position and in this moment. People in places across the north of England can now see clearly that we are up against the odds, and that we have no choice but to work together to bring back the authority and responsibility we need to look after ourselves and each other. No one is going to do it for us.
The excitement of the final few months of the Scottish independence referendum gave a huge boost of energy and hope to the ongoing conversation about how people and places in the north of England can reclaim authority and responsibility.
But that energy and hope won’t last forever if they don’t lead to things happening within a reasonable time scale. A directly elected mayor for Greater Manchester is one of a number of good concrete first steps.
An elected Manchester city-region mayor is a centre of decision making, however modest at first, that is distinct from the gentlemanly capitalist structures of the south east, and enshrines, in a role that is visible on a Europe-wide scale, the principle that choices should be made where people live and work. That is true of places in the north of England, and everywhere else in England, as much as in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London.
If a directly elected mayor happens, I think it will be very difficult for Whitehall and Westminster to undo it again.
Even more excitingly, it is graspable by the people of Greater Manchester. A coalition of Greens, Lib-Dems, even thoughtful Conservatives, and, I hope, people who aren’t interested in party politics at all but do care about the place where they make their life, could come together to challenge the Labour Party in a way that is never now going to be possible in a ward-by-ward slog. It happened in Bristol, why not Greater Manchester? Credit to the Labour leaders of Greater Manchester for accepting that possibility.
A mayoral election will be a wonderfully positive and self-reinforcing process: the more vigorous the campaign, even if it fails, the more it liberates the local Labour Party from Westminster, and the more it protects the role of the mayor from being abolished.
A directly elected mayor isn’t the only concrete first step that is happening. There are new regional organisations dedicated to giving a voice to people and places in the north. The North East Party has already quietly gone about winning council seats. The leaders of voluntary and charity organisations are beginning to hear from their counterparts in Scotland about the positive benefits of devolution in practice and to want the same.
It makes sense to see all of these developments and more as parallel experiments in how to take the first steps. The people trying to take them should be having conversations to share and coordinate aims, knowledge and approaches.
I heard the leader of Manchester City Council speak at a conference in Manchester town hall, and he began by pointing out “I’ve been involved in trying to get devolution for 20 years”. His approach may not be yours, or mine, but it’s a long-term commitment and that is alone is worthy of respect and engagement.
Nobody knows how to do any of this, which is why it’s so exciting to be involved in. We’ve got no choice but to try things and see what happens. A directly elected mayor for Greater Manchester is one first step. Let’s take it together while we can, and start building on it now to take the next step.