The dangers of ignoring this recession's bitter regional edge

The north of England and many of the other English regions are enduring a daily squeeze that is seld

As we all know, northerners are made of stern stuff and historically have seized any opportunities thrown their way. Nonetheless, with regards to recent economic trends north of The Wash, we all have ample cause to feel miserable.

Consider recent form: that the north-east and Yorkshire and Humber were the top regions in the country for increases in unemployment in the last quarter. Unemployment in the whole north now stands at 9.45 per cent (compared to a national average of 8.2 per cent) a rate the north has not had to endure since 1995. Manufacturing, a sector with more clout in the north of England than the rest of the UK, shrank by 0.6 per cent in from June to August. Worse, recent business surveys suggest that while the private sector in the north is recovering from a difficult business environment over the summer, the flow of new orders coming in to northern businesses looks precarious.

The north of England and many of the other English regions are, day in day out, enduring a daily squeeze that is seldom acknowledged. Whitehall's apparent ill-regard to northern concerns was exemplified by last week's public sector unemployment figures. Latest research shows that in one year, 121,000 public sector jobs have been lost up north while 32,000 have been gained down south. This sits uneasily with the government's apparent aim to make cuts as "fair" as possible. As the accountancy firm Begbies Traynor reported recently, companies in the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire are being hit hardest by public sector retrenchment, with many small and medium sized enterprises disproportionately squeezed. Likewise, large companies like Boots have noted the stark impact cuts are having on their sales and consumer confidence in the north. We expect the labour market numbers, issued this Thursday, to reaffirm this glum picture.

Were it needed, this is all yet further proof that this great recession has a bitter regional edge. Through recent events in Europe, we have seen how one country's economic situation and performance can drastically differ from others. So it is in the English regions. Without a greater focus on spatial rebalancing and the significant decentralisation of central government functions away from Whitehall, both employment and demographic patterns are unlikely to shift. This matters to everyone: recent research from the OECD confirms that it is in a country's "lagging" regions (which make up 56 per cent of UK output) that the economic future lies. We must get growth in these regions in order to achieve growth and prosperity nationally. Positive growth figures in the north-west and Yorkshire in recent days are to be welcomed, but overall, there is still much with which to be greatly concerned.

Though we talk of a "UK economy" it is, largely, a falsehood. We need a more a nuanced understanding in our discourse as to how this great calamity is affecting the ordinary lives of those outside the greater south-east. Many of the wider iniquities that exist are seldom discussed. We in the north want to get out of this hole ourselves. To that end, IPPR North's Northern Economic Futures Commission is currently considering a wide array of proposals to kick start northern growth and make the north one of UK PLC's great success stories. But so long as we approach England and Britain as one economic bloc, with one set of economic priorities, we can never succeed -- it's time for Whitehall to recognise that.

Lewis Goodall is Researcher at IPPR North

 

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Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories