This week’s court ruling on the supremacy of parliament when it comes to the triggering of Article 50 has put the UK constitution at the centre of the Brexit debate. For many high-profile Leavers, this argument has always been in essence constitutional. For them, the original sin of the EU was its supremacy over national legislatures and judiciaries. They wanted our politicians to make our laws and our judges to rule on them. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the fact that they now find themselves arguing that our judges have no right to rule that our parliament is sovereign.
The constitutional anoraks of the Leave campaign may have given up on their most treasured beliefs, but the truth is that most of the public was never gripped by this kind of constitutional fervour. Yes people are frustrated with decisions being taken by elites in Brussels, but Westminster feels just as remote. People care about the balance of power in this country, but they are not exercised by the relationship between the branches of government. If taking back control simply means more decisions being taken in Westminster then people will continue to feel as powerless, ignored and disenfranchised as before.
My view is that Brexit represents a chance to take on the real constitutional problem of the United Kingdom, its anachronistic and suffocating centralism. For decades our regions have been drifting apart economically as London and the South East power ahead and the rest of the country is left trailing in its wake. My view is that this is a political problem as much as anything. An over mighty central government based in the South East has pursued economic policies that have exacerbated regional divisions and left many areas of our country feeling marginalised and neglected. As Gordon Brown argued this week, Brexit may have been partly a revolt of the regions but it is one that will hit those regions hardest due to the disproportionate amount of trade they do with the EU.
Economically, the southeast looks like a totally different entity to the rest of the country, an island within an island. For all the boasts that London is the ‘engine of our economy’, the truth is that it is powering only itself and its gains are not fuelling growth elsewhere. So what is the answer? I have written before that I believe that economically, as with so much else, our strength comes from within. What we in the North and in other regions need are three kinds of capital; financial, human and social.
Financial capital is the literally physical assets and money in the bank that we need to invest in our area. Growing up in Liverpool in the Eighties and Nineties, I would see the patches of derelict land in the city centre left by German bombs half a century before. That is what a lack of financial capital looks like. Liverpool may be doing better now, but there is still a chronic problem of underinvestment in the regions of the UK. Research into the national infrastructure pipeline last year revealed a planned investment amounting to £5,305 per head in London, but only £414 per head in the North East. If you look at lending by banks to SMEs, the story is the same with lending per head 74 per cent higher in London than the rest of England. Such discrepancies only drive our regions further apart.
On human capital the evidence is no less bleak. Cities like Liverpool, Sheffield and Birmingham are on track to have around 20 per cent of the workforce at the wage floor by 2020, in London the figure is only 8 per cent. Workforce productivity also lags far behind the capital, with GVA per hour 30 per cent above the national average in London but well below in every region save the South East. The capital, investment and good jobs in the South are creating brain drain that is depriving regional cities of the talent they so desperately need for their economies. Moreover it is fuelling a dispiriting sense in many parts of the country that in order to be socially mobile you must be geographically mobile, that success means leaving where you grew up.
This leads inexorably to social capital, our ability to have our voices heard, to have a seat at the table in the same terms as others. It is this very sense of self-worth and self-expression that is stifled when people see their areas falling behind and know that decisions about their futures are taken elsewhere. That is why I believe the answer to this economic problem must be political in nature. We in the north and the other regions do not need charity from the centre, nor is it enough to wait for a redistributive Labour government to take over the machinery of government. We need the ability to take more decisions ourselves and have more of a say in shaping our own future. Metro mayors are good, but they are not enough and it is a model that is ill suited to areas like Cornwall or the East of England.
I welcome Gordon Brown’s call this week for a constitutional convention to move towards a more federalised UK and Jon Trickett committing the Labour frontbench to this direction of travel. My view is that this is a Labour argument. Our historic mission has been to give a voice to people who are ignored in our politics and our economy and it is our party that has always understood that change only happens when people have a proper seat at the table. But if our history should point us in this direction it is our current situation that makes it urgent. Economic discontent, if left unaddressed, is the seedbed for the kind of politics that our movement exists to fight against. A kind of politics that seeks to divide people, to teach them they have little in common, to make them angry but to offer no solutions to that anger. This politics is on the rise, meanwhile Labour’s vote is consolidating in the big cities.
If nothing else, Brexit compels us to think bigger than we have been in recent years about the structure of our country and why so many people feel it doesn’t work for them. If we move beyond the process arguments and the parliamentary mechanics there is an agenda to be seized that can unite leavers and remainers. Many are questioning what the Labour party is for, and the answer is not easy. But if we can say that we are for this, for strong representation for our regions, for giving every area of our country a proper say in our economic future. Then that’s not a bad start.