In the background for now at least, the long and important Labour leadership battle rages on

David Miliband launches campaign against VAT rise +++ Ed Balls benefits from Question Time bounce ++

Amid the controversy surrounding the government's benefit cuts that are serving as small print for discussion following the Budget, the long-drawn-out Labour leadership contest continues to run, the other, less-noticed story in British politics today. So, time for a quick update on the three main players:

** David Miliband has launched a campaign against the increase in VAT from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent, which the Lib Dems themselves had opposed and which even the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has labelled "regressive". He is writing to each Lib Dem MP setting out why they should vote against the move in the Budget. Miliband has also criticised the record on schooling of successive governments -- including Labour administrations -- and called for the removal of the "obstacle course" of constant exams for students from the age of 14 onward.

** In Westminster, Ed Balls is considered to have done his campaign no harm with his feisty performance on BBC1's Question Time last week, during which he tore into the "stooge" Vince Cable over the Budget and over the reversal of critical Lib Dem policy lines -- including the position on VAT -- that had provided cover for the party. Yesterday, Balls made the running on Iain Duncan Smith's plans for reallocating the jobless, likening it to Norman Tebbit's call for the unemployed to get "on your bike".

** And Ed Miliband sets out his case for "values" over "management" in politics in a ten-minute interview for the BBC's Daily Politics. In it, he says that he is a politician of the "centre ground" but that he is in politics to "shape that centre ground from the left". Miliband notes that it wasn't just people "on the left" who were outraged at the banking crisis, for example, and claims that he could reach out beyond Labour's core vote. Incidentally, he admits to having a "geekish" background, but defends his career, which has been largely in politics. He also confirms that he and his brother, David, told each other that it would be "quite wrong" to stand in one another's way when both men decided to stand for the leadership.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.