Leader: The north-south divide is not inevitable. England must not become two nations

The UK’s regional disparities were not the creation of this government but they have been made worse by its unbalanced austerity programme.

No part of the country is the subject of greater condescension and misunderstanding than the north of England. “Desolate”, “barren” and “grim” are the epithets of choice for those unacquainted with the land beyond Birmingham. Over the following pages, Rachel Cooke, Philip Hensher, Ben Chu and others dispel these clichés and describe the north’s true qualities: its natural beauty, its cultural vibrancy, its ethnic diversity, its economic inventiveness.

If the region’s woes have been overstated, the divide between it and the south remains unmistakable. While unemployment has fallen to just 5.9 per cent in the south-east, it has risen to 10.2 per cent in the north-east and to 8.9 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber. Ninety-six per cent of all employment growth in England in the past year has taken place in London, the south-east, the south-west and the east of the country. Far from enjoying the fruits of the recovery, the north is barely emerging from recession.

The UK’s regional disparities were not the creation of this government but they have been made worse by its unbalanced austerity programme. In 2010 Nick Clegg vowed: “We’re not going to allow a great north-south divide to reappear.” That is precisely what has occurred. Local authorities in the northeast and the north-west have been forced to cut spending by 12 per cent, compared to just 4.6 per cent in the south-east. Worse, the north has been drained of state investment, with 89 per cent of transport spending allocated to London and the south-east, including £16.5bn for Crossrail and £6.5bn for the Thameslink upgrade.

The government has championed High Speed 2 as a means of bridging the divide, but by strengthening the gravitational pull of London and reducing the number of northern intercity services the project (which, if it goes ahead, will not be completed until 2033) risks having the reverse effect. The lack of private as well as public investment in the region reflects its political weakness. While Boris Johnson and Alex Salmond act as cheerleaders for London and Scotland, respectively, the north has no equivalent figure of national prominence. All attempts at devolution in the past decade have failed; the northeast voted overwhelmingly against an elected assembly in 2004 (prompting the shelving of planned referendums in the northwest and Yorkshire); Bradford, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield rejected the proposed creation of directly elected mayors last year. With London increasingly dominant and Scotland likely to gain greater powers if it votes against independence next year, the danger is that the north of England will become even more marginalised. Business leaders have already warned of how a fiscally autonomous Scotland could attract investment away from the region by judicious use of tax cuts and capital allowances.

There is nothing inevitable about a growing north-south divide but more imaginative policymaking will be required. All parties should consider the proposals recently made by IPPR North, including the decentralisation of housing and transport powers, the creation of a northern investment and trade board, the establishment of Manchester as a second international airport hub and the localisation of business rates.

In 1962 Harold Macmillan’s home secretary Henry Brooke warned: “If we do not regard it as a major government responsibility to take this situation in hand and prevent two nations developing geographically, a poor north and a rich and overcrowded south, I am sure our successors will reproach us as we reproach the Victorians for complacency about slums and ugliness.” Five decades later, the task identified by this One Nation Tory remains the same. If the government is to achieve its stated ambitions to rebalance the economy away from its reliance on the City of London and to widen social mobility, it cannot do so on the basis of a prosperous south and a stagnant north. The divisions that were sharpened during austerity must be healed now, during recovery.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.