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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.