The city that Disraeli once called “the philosophical capital of the world” has often spelled trouble for the Conservative Party. Manchester was the site of the struggle for free trade, which in 1846 broke the Tory party in two under the leadership of a local man, Robert Peel of Bury. But as Manchester resists Westminster in negotiations over lockdown conditions, we need to take care not to reason from the Manchester mayor Andy Burnham’s contretemps with Boris Johnson to the politics of the rest of the north of England.
In 2013 Paul Morley wrote a sprawling book called The North (And Almost Everything In It), which proved that the idea of “the north” does not cohere. The north is The Real Housewives of Cheshire as well as the Durham Miners’ Gala. It is Rishi Sunak’s market town of Richmond as well as Ewan MacColl’s dirty old town. It is the Poet Laureate as well as Ian Brown’s tweets about coronavirus.
The north is an imagined community, which in too much commentary figures as little more than not-London. There is really nothing, barely even geographical propinquity, that binds Sheffield to Newcastle, or Liverpool to Manchester, for that matter. The experiment with regional assemblies failed because “the north-west” or “the north-east” is nobody’s principal unit of identity. We live closer to home than that.
Now, there is apparently a wall separating this inexplicable “north” from the rest of the nation. This is a wall that has turned blue but that is still known as Red. The bricks in the Blue Wall are, in fact, unstable because they are of many different shapes and sizes. Some, like the Bury seats, are weathervanes, towns that almost always choose the winner and in which a Tory MP is nothing new.
Already there are signs that in Greater Manchester – in Bury, Trafford and Stockport and in Burnham’s old bailiwick of Leigh – the Tories are in trouble. Some of the city’s constituencies are old-fashioned swing seats, which just happen to be in the right place for bad analysis.
This is not to deny that some seats have been through great upheaval. Until 2019, Bishop Auckland and Workington had been Labour at every election but one since 1918. Don Valley and Leigh had returned a Labour member of parliament at every election since 1922, Wakefield since 1932 and Bassetlaw and Sedgefield since 1935. Blyth Valley had been Labour on all but one occasion since its formation in 1950, the same year that the constituency of Bolsover was created. Both went Tory for the first time last December.
These are places to which the Labour Party has forgotten how to speak. The popularity of Keir Starmer should warn us against the patronising idea that all northern folk want is a northerner as their candidate. Labour now has a leader who can win seats in the north of England, but it is not yet a party that can do so – at least beyond the cities and their adjacent towns. The sense that Labour has lost touch with its people may be hard to repair.
Help may be at hand, however, in the form of calamity. The best passage in Morley’s book is his precise and well- informed account of the decline of hat production, the world centre of which was Denton and Stockport. The hat industry, now commemorated in a fine museum, collapsed with the shift from dirty to clean work, covered cars and the rise of the exhibitionist hairstyle such as the beehive and the quiff. It was all too suddenly no longer true, as the old slogan ran, that if you want to get ahead, get a hat.
There might be a clue here to the politics to come. It is assumed in the coverage of the mythical north that the adhesive in the Blue Wall is identity. It will be fascinating to see if this explanation will survive a recession. There is a storm coming, of the sort that governments rarely withstand.
In my home town of Bury there is a company whose trade organising international exhibitions has dried up. With typical ingenuity they have diversified. They have started making coffins.
A second lockdown could mean that the coffin-makers are the lucky ones. Bury Council’s analysis shows that cash reserves are running low in the town’s businesses. They contemplate the end of October – when the furlough scheme, which is upholding 23,000 jobs, will finish – with great trepidation. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that most of the places likely to be worst affected by the virus are those with relatively older, more deprived populations: in South Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, the north-west and the north-east.
At which point the fortunes of the Tory party are going to suffer and the MPs, who are already frantic, are going to get more restive still. It will take some fortitude to remember that their strongest asset is the man who is leading them through the fiasco. At any given moment there will be plenty of evidence for the proposition that Boris Johnson is a terrible prime minister. Yet that might not be as serious a criticism as it sounds.
The Prime Minister’s deficiencies are such regular exhibits that we are apt to forget his virtues. As a harvester of votes, Boris Johnson is the best the Tories have got. Labour does obligingly seem to field only duffers against him (a burned-out Ken Livingstone and a hapless Jeremy Corbyn) but Johnson unquestionably stretches the appeal of the Tory party into places it has hitherto struggled to reach. Nor is this just about Brexit. Johnson is a character and lots of people quite like him. At least they know who he is. Perhaps Rishi Sunak can pull the same trick across the north of England but I rather doubt it.
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic