How should we address the north-south divide? No major political party has proposed a serious and comprehensive plan to alleviate the dangerous inequality pervading England. The Conservatives have deftly captured the agenda through the Northern Powerhouse and their “levelling up” programme. But these have been largely electoral ploys that have failed to properly name the issue, let alone address it. Labour’s strategy to win back northern seats has been characterised by an ungainly focus on patriotism that has neglected the economic and political radicalism required.
In a move inseparably bound to a rejection of this status quo, the Northern Independence Party (NIP) was established in October 2020. “We’re a revolt against the Tories pretending that they can represent the north, and we’re a revolt against Labour for just ignoring us and taking us for granted,” Philip Proudfoot, the founder of the NIP, told me when we spoke recently.
The NIP, a self-styled democratic socialist party, wants the north to leave the UK and become an independent country called Northumbria. The party advocates a “green industrial rebirth”, increased funding for public services and “socialism with a northern accent”. “I believe in traditions of solidarity, mutualism and support… we’re going to celebrate the best of us, not the worst of us,” Proudfoot, a lecturer in development studies at the University of Sussex, said.
Propelled by a jaunty social media strategy, the party has gained prominence with the announcement of the Hartlepool by-election on 6 May, where the party plans to stand a candidate. Proudfoot, 33, said he’s confident that the NIP will also win its first councillor this year. In the local elections, the party will field as many candidates as its budget allows and is in conversation with several Labour councillors who are considering defection.
While northern independence may appear unfeasible, the party is revealing as a symptom of the current political climate. Many of the party’s followers are former Labour supporters alienated by Keir Starmer’s leadership and a perceived crackdown on local party democracy. Labour itself is divided on whether it’s a party of the north.
Thelma Walker, the Labour MP for Colne Valley from 2017-19, who worked closely with John McDonnell, has endorsed the NIP. Proudfoot believes that “we have a really good chance of winning Hartlepool with Walker, if the party selects her”. The NIP’s candidate has not yet been announced but hustings are due to take place soon. Walker said that she was “very impressed” with the party and could see “the serious thinking” and “commitment” behind it.
“I am weary, weary with the way the north has been underfunded… and I’m sick of this inequality,” Walker told me. “There’s a political vacuum at the moment… and people are searching for that leadership and for that party that will represent their views and their beliefs… I just think Labour’s not an effective opposition.” Walker, a former headteacher, resigned from Labour last November after Jeremy Corbyn lost the party whip over his response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s report on anti-Semitism.
Proudfoot is himself a former Labour activist but resents the party’s “reversion to Blairism” under Starmer. “What does the Labour Party do? They install a London-based lawyer who, let us not forget, pretended it was going to be professional Corbynism – same policies, professional man. It’s not.”
The party isn’t only a reaction to Starmer’s leadership, but also to southern socialists who depict the north as a bigoted backwater. “I encounter this on the left. And it’s a huge problem, a huge degree of ignorance. I’ve had people tell me that the north is an entirely white place populated by bigots in flat caps. And then I start telling them about the huge Yemeni community in Newcastle [South Shields] and they don’t know the first thing about it.”
But Proudfoot does not dismiss all Labour politicians. He was inspired to found the party after watching Andy Burnham’s outraged response on live TV to the government’s limited support package for Greater Manchester last October. He believes that the Manchester metro mayor “cares deeply about the north-south divide” and is responsible for “boiling up this sentiment”.
“The north-south divide is something that’s shaped my life entirely, shaped so many other people from the north’s lives. We all know it, we all know it exists, we feel it. But to see it live on air, to see it actually manifest in front of you… I thought ‘OK, we really, really have to do something about this’.”
“If Andy Burnham is serious about the king of the north schtick… we’ll back him, we’ll support him… We’re prepared to work cross party.”
The formation of the NIP and its success appear inextricably linked to the Labour Party. Parallels with the SNP inevitability come to mind, particularly as its ascent was dependent on Labour’s collapse in Scotland. It’s no surprise, then, that Proudfoot has taken advice from someone in the SNP.
But Scotland and the north are not comparable. The SNP’s demand for independence is buttressed by Scotland’s centuries-old legal, education and monetary institutions. During the 1820s debate surrounding the fate of Scotland’s currency, the Scottish novelist and historian Walter Scott wrote that “we had better remain in union with England, even at the risk of becoming a subordinate species of Northumberland, as far as national consequence is concerned”.
The NIP may be quixotic, or it may be the germination of a political force that gives the north “national consequence”. Scott went on to write: “There is no harm in wishing Scotland to have just so much ill-nature… as may keep her good-nature from being abused.” Perhaps the NIP are just the type of “ill-nature” needed to hold the major parties accountable for failing to address the north-south divide.