Countering the capital orthodoxy

Why Janan Ganesh is wrong about the north and economic agglomeration.

Janan Ganesh this week wrote a column that flew in the face of all the contemporary evidence on the nature of economic agglomeration; the role of mid-sized cities in developed economies; and the role of public policy in addressing contemporary globalisation.

Despite the most rapid growth taking place in the capital city, 57 per cent of net aggregate growth was generated by so-called "intermediate regions" in the UK. The north of England, for example, also produces a quarter of national economic output; it is twice the size of the Scottish economy and if it were a nation it would rank as the eighth-largest in the EU, ahead of Sweden, Denmark and Belgium.

Economists across the world – OECDMcKinseys to name but two – are increasingly interested in the role of mid-sized cities in driving national economic output and it is now widely recognised that the underperformance of UK cities outside London is the cause of a significant drag on the national economy. In fiscal terms, that drag appears through an ever-worsening gearing between tax generation in London and the south-east – supported by apparently "spatially-blind" policy measures - which is then redistributed beyond the capital city in the form of grants and benefits. That gearing needs to change by releasing the potential of Britain’s city economies.

Ganesh is right to name the strong “impersonal forces and historical trends” that have shaped London’s dominance in recent years and had devastating impact on a deindustrialising north and midlands. But to suggest that the north has never punched its weight is to deny the Industrial Revolution ever took place, even if the majority of its spoils – and those of the wider Empire – did end up stoking London’s stock exchange. It is the same trends and forces that led to the financial crash but again the idea that Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley were somehow that causes of that crash is quite ludicrous – they were simply the first UK casualties of a global phenomenon.

It is also wrong to suggest that public policy has had – and will have – no purchase on these forces and trends. London’s agglomeration has a huge amount to do with it being the seat of political and cultural as well as economic power. Our own analysis of government spending on economic affairs shows that London has consistently received twice the amount per capita as any other region excluding Scotland and that since 2008/9 this amount has increased more than 25 per cent whilst declining in the rest of the country. In terms of transport infrastructure spending, the current National Infrastructure Plan commits £2,595 per head to London and the south-east compared with just £5 per head in the north-east. In terms of R&D, Scientific Research Council spending is three times as much per capita in London than in any Northern region despite the existence of eight world class universities in the North.

Much international evidence shows that agglomeration can be successfully supported by an active industrial policy which spreads wealth around nations such as Germany and Sweden through a range of effective measures. The problem – as Ganesh quite rightly points out – is that such measures in the UK have been relatively weak and ineffectual, largely hampered by the vested interests of an overly centralised bureaucracy as most recently evidenced in the pathetic government response to Heseltine’s Single Local Growth Fund.

His critique of the “Hezza-Prezza years” is though once again without evidence. The fact that London continued to grow faster than the regions is a function of the growth of the financial service sector rather than an indictment of public policy. And the role that Regional Development Agencies have played in the transformation of cities like Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle should not be underestimated. Although those cities and their hinterlands may not yet have fully made the transition to a post-industrial economy, they are a long way further forward and well-positioned to continue to grow.

Ganesh argues that London that needs a “citywide government of its own”. This is true, but it’s not just London. Central government control over economic affairs constrains not just London but the whole country. Indeed, one could argue that in wresting control of transport and housing, the London mayoralty is doing very well. From Travers’ London Finance Commission, to Heseltine’s No Stone Unturned, to last year’s Northern Economic Futures Commission the message is clear – Whitehall must let go: of transport, innovation, skills, welfare, housing and crucially fiscal powers and incentives if the national economy is to thrive.

One wonders what kind of London Ganesh sees as the outcome of his laissez-faire approach. With the lowest quality of life indicators in the country already, Londoners will surely be concerned at the prospect of a new overcrowded Mumbai? And what might be the constitutional implications of a new city-state like Singapore? This is a debate that has a growing urgency, for if recent reporting is anything to go by it may well be that the biggest legacy of the London Olympics will not be a sporting one but that Ganan’s orthodoxy reigns once and for all.

Ed Cox is the director of IPPR North. Find him on Twitter as @edcox_ippr

The Corus steelworks in Redcar. Photo: Getty

Ed Cox is Director at IPPR North. He tweets @edcox_ippr.

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Stop saying identity politics caused Trump

It's a wildly unsophisticated analysis that ignores the fact that all politics is inflected by identity.

Look, I don't mean to be funny, but is there something in the water supply? When Mark Lilla wrote his jeremiad against "identity liberalism" in the New York Times, it was comprehensively picked over and rebutted. But this zombie take has risen again. In the last 24 hours, all these tweets have drifted across my timeline:

And then this (now deleted, I think, probably because I was mean about it on Twitter).

And finally, for the hat-trick . . .

Isn't it beautiful to see a Blairite, a Liberal Leaver and a Corbynite come together like this? Maybe there is a future for cross-spectrum, consensual politics in this country.

These are all versions of a criticism which has swilled around since Bernie Sanders entered the US presidential race, and ran on a platform of economic populism. They have been turbocharged by Sanders' criticisms since the result, where he blamed Clinton's loss on her attempt to carve up the electorate into narrow groups. And they are now repeated ad nauseam by anyone wanting to sound profound: what if, like, Black Lives Matter are the real racists, yeah? Because they talk about race all the time.

This glib analysis has the logical endpoint that if only people didn't point out racism or sexism or homophobia, those things would be less of a problem. Talking about them is counterproductive, because it puts people's backs up (for a given definition of "people"). She who smelt it, dealt it.

Now, I have strong criticisms of what I would call Pure Identity Politics, unmoored from economics or structural concerns. I have trouble with the idea of Caitlyn Jenner as an "LGBT icon", given her longstanding opposition to gay marriage and her support for an administration whose vice-president appears to think you can electrocute the gay out of people. I celebrate female leaders even if I don't agree with their politics, because there shouldn't be an additional Goodness Test which women have to pass to be deemed worthy of the same opportunities as men. But I don't think feminism's job is done when there are simply a few more female CEOs or political leaders, particularly if (as is now the case) those women are more likely than their male peers to be childless. Role models only get you so far. Structures are important too.

I also think there are fair criticisms to be made of the Clinton campaign, which was brave - or foolish, depending on your taste - to associate her so explicitly with progressive causes. Stephen Bush and I have talked on the podcast about how hard Barack Obama worked to reassure White America that he wasn't threatening, earning himself the ire of the likes of Cornel West. Hillary Clinton was less mindful of the feelings of both White America and Male America, running an advert explicitly addressed to African-Americans, and using (as James Morris pointed out to me on Twitter) the slogan "I'm With Her". 

Watching back old Barack Obama clips (look, everyone needs a hobby), it's notable how many times he stressed the "united" in "united states of America". It felt as though he was trying to usher in a post-racial age by the sheer force of his rhetoric. 

As Obama told Ta-Nehisi Coates during his last days in office, he thought deeply about how to appeal to all races: 

"How do I pull all these different strains together: Kenya and Hawaii and Kansas, and white and black and Asian—how does that fit? And through action, through work, I suddenly see myself as part of the bigger process for, yes, delivering justice for the [African American community] and specifically the South Side community, the low-income people—justice on behalf of the African American community. But also thereby promoting my ideas of justice and equality and empathy that my mother taught me were universal. So I’m in a position to understand those essential parts of me not as separate and apart from any particular community but connected to every community."

Clinton's mistake was perhaps that she thought this caution was no longer needed.

So there are criticisms of "identity politics" that I accept, even as I wearily feel that - like "neoliberalism" - it has become a bogeyman, a dumpster for anything that people don't like but don't care to articulate more fully.

But there are caveats, and very good reasons why anyone pretending to a sophisticated analysis of politics shouldn't say that "identity politics caused Trump".

The first is that if you have an identity that any way marks you out from the norm, you can't change that. Hillary Clinton couldn't not be the first woman candidate from a major party running for the US presidency. She either had to embrace it, or downplay it. Donald Trump faced no such decision. 

The second is that, actually, Clinton didn't run an explicitly identity-focused campaign on the ground, at least not in terms of her being a woman. Through the prism of the press, and because of the rubbernecker's dream that is misogyny on social media, her gender inevitably loomed large. But as Rebecca Solnit wrote in the LRB:

"The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy, exactly the things she was berated for neglecting. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each. But she was assumed to be talking about her gender all the time, though it was everyone else who couldn’t shut up about it."

My final problem with the "identity politics caused Trump" argument is that it assumes that explicit appeals to whiteness and masculinity are not identity politics. That calling Mexicans "rapists" and promising to build a wall to keep them out is not identity politics. That promising to "make America great again" at the expense of the Chinese or other trading partners is not identity politics. That selling a candidate as an unreconstructed alpha male is not identity politics. When you put it that way, I do accept that identity politics caused Trump. But I'm guessing that's not what people mean when they criticise identity politics. 

Let's be clear: America is a country built on identity politics. The "all men" who were created equal notably excluded a huge number of Americans. Jim Crow laws were nothing if not identity politics. The electoral college was instituted to benefit southern slave-owners. This year's voting restrictions disproportionately affected populations which lean Democrat. There is no way to fight this without prompting a backlash: that's what happens when you demand that the privileged give up some of their perks. 

I don't know what the "identity politics caused Trump" guys want gay rights campaigners, anti-racism activists or feminists to do. Those on the left, like Richard Burgon, seem to want a "no war but the class war" approach, which would be all very well if race and gender didn't intersect with economics (the majority of unpaid care falls squarely on women; in the US, black households have far fewer assets than white ones.)

Those on the right, like Daniel Hannan, seem to just want people banging on about racism and homophobia to shut up because he, personally, finds it boring. Perhaps they don't know any old English poetry with which to delight their followers instead. (Actually, I think Hannan might have hit on an important psychological factor in some of these critiques: when conversations centre on anti-racism, feminism and other identity movements, white men don't benefit from their usual unearned assumption of expertise in the subject at hand. No wonder they find discussion of them boring.)

Both of these criticisms end up in the same place. Pipe down, ladies. By complaining, you're only making it worse. Hush now, Black Lives Matter: white people find your message alienating. We'll sort out police racism... well, eventually. Probably. Just hold tight and see how it goes. Look, gay people, could you be a trifle... less gay? It's distracting.

I'm here all day for a discussion about the best tactics for progressive campaigners to use. I'm sympathetic to the argument that furious tweets, and even marches, have limited effect compared with other types of resistance.

But I can't stand by while a candidate wins on an identity-based platform, in a political system shaped by identity, and it's apparently the fault of the other side for talking too much about identity.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.