How to write about the north

Try to evoke a vague, slightly chilly sense of up-thereness and isolation. Mention any traffic problems on your journey, failure of lineside equipment near Stockport or any particularly awful baguette you were offered on the train. Ask: did you know they

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Inspired by the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s celebrated essay “How to Write About Africa”, here is some guidance for those wishing to tackle the north of England.

First: don’t define your terms. The north is not so much a place as a national myth, so don’t confuse your reader with any specific or detailed references to, say, Merseyside or County Durham. The northerners won’t thank you for it anyway, being petty churls riven with factional differences and impacted grudges. Assume that everyone knows what and where the north is – don’t attempt anything as prosaic or useful as a definition.

Depending on the kind of piece you are trying to write, you will probably want to convey something of the following:

Re-Return to Road to Wigan Pier (Again) Revisited. Concerned liberal goes back “oop north” on any convenient Orwell anniversary to find they’re all still eating chips and dying of pneumonia.

It’s Flat White Skinny Latte Not Flat Caps Any More! Wide-eyed, well-meant “Did You Know They Have Wi-Fi and Sushi?” travel blog occasioned by Hull winning City of Culture 2017.

The Shame of My Dewsbury. Daily Telegraph piece by Today programme presenter who left in 1968 based on inaccurate rates of teenage pregnancy and an obese family he once saw on The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Auntie’s Folly. Screed of barely concealed contempt and suspicion (usually in the Daily Mail online) on BBC relocating to Salford straplined “Bill Turnbull fears for his life every time he parks car, say friends.”

And so on. Try to evoke a vague, slightly chilly sense of up-thereness and isolation. Mention any traffic problems on your journey, failure of lineside equipment near Stockport or any particularly awful baguette you were offered on the train. After this, let your intentions be your guide. If your piece is generally favourable, mention any hills or cows you glimpse from first class and even risk a bit of poetry about pylons or cooling towers. If not, do note the first swear word you hear, particularly from a hoodie or a uniformed employee of any privatised industry.

Go big on phonetics, especially with regard to cursing. “Fook” and “bluddy” should be written as if in Middle English to better emphasise the mood of both the alien and the ancient. This is a primitive place, several centuries behind Islington, and a good writer will evoke this sense of primal darkness underlying the seemingly normal. Remember, it could all kick off in the north at any minute, even in Booths supermarket (their version of Waitrose). If no one actually says “Ee bah gum” or “Garlic bread?” or “Art tha oop for’t coop?”, try to engineer it. Offer money. It doesn’t matter that you’d never dream of reproducing a Bristolian or an Aussie or an Old Etonian phonetically. It is expected of the north. It makes them feel different. It makes them feel special.

What could be more northern than crime and violence? This should be reflected in your piece. Remember that different rules apply here and you must get the terminology right. Shoreditch is “edgy” whereas Longsight is “dangerous”. Bow is “real”, Whitehaven is “run-down”. Hackney is “gritty and bracing”, Rotherham is “bleak and menacing”. Other good words to drop are “blighted”, “desperate”, “red-brick”, “eyesore”, “hen party”, “fake tan”, and “Greggs”.

Food and shopping in the north is, as we all know, uniformly dreadful. However, if you are a London-based restaurant critic (is there any other kind?) it will behove you occasionally to placate your paper’s advertisers by leaving NW1 for the north. Hopefully this will be to somewhere civilised like the Inn at Whitewell or Sharrow Bay. But if, God forbid, it’s Carlisle or Leeds, be sure to let any minor discomfiture be reflected in your review. Patronise wearily. Imply that the sushi/ibérico ham/marrowbone granita is probably passable for Cumbria but would be a laughing stock in Hampstead. Mock the staff’s accents and the chef’s pretensions to metropolitan standards. Do include something disparaging about any difficulties you had parking the car or getting a taxi. The tone should be high-handed and sneering, but with a hint of noblesse oblige.

If your piece is more generally positive, you may want to include something about the region’s achievements. But remember to keep this largely to football, comedy and pop music. Display a familiarity with – but a patrician distance from – the works of the Stone Roses, Tony Wilson, Bez (he’s a funny one!) Arctic Monkeys, Jarvis Cocker, Oasis, the Verve, John Cooper Clarke and New Order.

If you can mention any of their football allegiances, all the better. Mention of Accrington Stanley usually gets a laugh.

Never forget that the north of England is essentially comic. You may be tempted to overlook this in favour of a nuanced account of how it was the Victorian industrial powerhouse that shaped the world’s economies and politics – but this would be a mistake. Rely instead on the more humorous tropes that have served other writers well. The people here are good-hearted but essentially simple, unless they are criminals or drug addicts (see all TV police procedurals) The men are blunt, half-witted and work-shy while the women are brassy, big-hearted, and of easy virtue. Mention “donkey-stoning” and “sparking clogs”. These are northern things apparently.

On no account waste your time dredging up any of the region’s political, scientific or cultural achievements; these are somewhat dull and worthy, and not exactly representative of the North as we like to think of it. Think Noel Gallagher, Gary Neville and Peter Kaye, not Alan Turing, Henry Moore, Rutherford splitting the Atom, the Pankhursts, Wordsworth, Engels or the Peterloo Massacre.

Illustrations? L S Lowry is perfect but avoid the weird Edvard Munch-esque ones, or the landscapes. Try to find one with downtrodden crowds, a mill chimney or a child with callipers. It shouldn’t be too hard. Photographs should have been taken no later than 1962, be in black and white and feature sooty-faced coal miners emerging from the pithead or urchins kicking a football in a back alley, not hi-tech office blocks or young women with iPhones drinking cocktails, however many you may encounter. Never use a picture of a northerner in a suit unless it is a TV comedian or a celebrity footballer appearing at his drink-driving hearing. If you can get a mangy dog, a rat-faced kid in a cheap tracksuit or an old dear with a tartan shopping trolley, so much the better.

Don’t go to Harrogate, Hebden Bridge, Durham, any part of the Northumberland Coast, the Lake District, the Eden Valley, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay or Hadrian’s Wall. This is not really “the north” as we all understand it and will only confuse your readers. Keep it urban, keep it polluted, keep it depressed. And don’t be afraid of any comeback from actual Northerners. You can always put this down to “chippiness”.

They love that.

Stuart Maconie is a writer and a presenter on BBC Radio 6 Music

Straight out of central casting: coal miners in Waldridge, County Durham, early 1960s. Photograph: John Bulmer/Getty Images.

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

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

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.