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24 June 2016

Leaving the North behind led to Brexit. Here’s what has to happen next

For Labour, the risk is nothing short of extinction, warns Ed Cox. 

By Ed Cox

The people have spoken, but in the North they have shouted. Economically, politically and socially Northerners have had enough. The signs of malaise with the Westminster elite have been there for some time – but the rise of Ukip outside the big cities has been largely masked by the sop of devolution, talk of a Northern Powerhouse and our voting system. Now, Northerners in large numbers would seem to have landed a punch that will give the whole nation a bloody nose for years to come.

Economically, to leave the EU is clearly not in Northern interests. Whatever you believe about the Northern Powerhouse, few can deny that our trading relationships with our (soon to be former) European partners matter much more to northern businesses than they do to the City of London. Nearly sixty per cent of all North Eastern trade is with Europe, compared with just 40 per cent in London. And yet who will be first to the table to negotiate new trade deals? What will guide decision-making in the board room at Nissan or Siemens? If we end up bidding farewell to our nearest neighbours in Scotland, no amount of repatriated EU grant will begin to plug the hole that this decision leaves. The North’s incomplete transition from its industrial past has meant that it has fared worse than the rest of the country in every recession since the 70s, and that transition just got a whole lot harder.

Politically, the genie is out of the lamp. The Conservative Party may well be irrevocably split and the Prime Minister a dead man walking, but in the North of England – for so long Labour’s assumed home turf – red roses are being replaced by purple rosettes. This result is clearly a blow to Labour’s prospects in the north and pours cold water Osborne’s vision of city renaissance and industrial revival in the North as a political strategy has come unstuck. And what of the Chancellor now? We should fear that – whether the Chancellor is George Osborne or a replacement – the Northern Powerhouse will be the least of his or her concerns as the pound plummets and the national economy reels. While storing up so much political capital with the core cities may have delivered some small dollops of yellow amidst the sea of blue on the referendum map it means about as much to his chances of survival as the word ‘agglomeration’ does to Brenda in Burnley or Wasim in Wakefield.

Ultimately, though, it was society, stupid. Immigration trumped economic concerns: it plays out in Northern communities very differently to what we see in hyperdiverse London boroughs With its more rapidly ageing demographics, Northern towns and cities need migrants more than anywhere else. And not just in our hospitals. Our universities thrive with international talent that often stays to start business and attract investment. But this matters little when too many people experience polarised communities living separate lives and when leaving the EU somehow seems to make sense of such change.

So where now for the North? Economically, if the UK is going to go it alone, we need to define the kind of economy we want to become. Our obsession with the big cities and aggregate growth must take a new turn and wake up to the cries of those on the margins who are busy manufacturing the goods we will now struggle harder to sell overseas. For the sake of such people we need new trade agreements fast and a Great North Plan that maximises all our economic assets. Our calls for an East-West Freight Supercorridor linking Atlantic shipping to Liverpool with the European continent via Hull, and broader investment in international connectivity, should grow louder. We need a Global North now like never before.

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Politically, we should let devolution rip. If Scotland goes its own way, any attempt by Westminster parties to centralise administrative control in the name of national unity will be met with further body blows. Both major political parties must reinvent themselves from the bottom up with more plural local political systems that bring people closer to power. Metro mayors and combined authorities are a start, but we need proportional representation, votes at 16 and proper scrutiny of devolved arrangements to rekindle local democracy and stem the desire to use national democratic moments to excise pent up impotence.

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But it is socially where the greatest challenge lies in the weeks ahead. Regions, cities and communities stand more divided than ever in living memory and the consequences will reverberate down every street as the threat of recession looms and Leave’s promised land looks ever more distant. It is at the neighbourhood level that we will need to rediscover our true North. And where better to look than to Batley? Jo Cox may not have left a legacy to Remain that she would have wanted; but her message of love, hope and reconciliation is more important than ever.