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2 April 2021

Seven thoughts about the Northern Independence Party

Its electoral prospects in the Hartlepool by-election are slim – but could it draw more attention to tackling north-south inequality?

By Jonn Elledge

The Northern Independence Party (NIP) applied for registration with the Electoral Commission in February. It was established to campaign for exactly what its name suggests, under the slogan of “We’re not English, we are Northumbrian” – last heard, I believe, in the ninth century.

It has since racked up more than 45,000 Twitter followers and released a mini manifesto to the Huffington Post, promising policies including public control of energy and water companies, more pilots of a universal basic income, lowering the state pension age and, more unexpectedly, “an increase in the penalties for sheep worrying”. (Lot of farmers in the north, I suppose.) In case you were thinking this didn’t sound entirely serious, it also announced Thelma Walker as its first official candidate: the former Labour MP for Colne Valley will contest next month’s Hartlepool by-election for the NIP.

How big a deal is this? Even if the party doesn’t manage its ultimate goal of northern secession (which, I’m going to admit upfront, I feel is just a little on the unlikely side), could it make an impact in other ways, perhaps by getting more attention for the oft-neglected north? Some thoughts…

1. Making everyone look north is a good thing

Average earnings are significantly higher in the south; health strikingly poorer in the north. The north-south divide has persisted for decades, yet has been largely ignored by the government.

Worse than ignored, in fact: austerity has led to the amount of cash on offer from the Treasury falling in the north, but rising in much of the south. In 2019 an IPPR report found that planned transport spending in London was almost three times higher per person than in the north as a whole, and seven times higher per person than in Yorkshire and the Humber. Boris Johnson’s government has talked about closing the divide, but has done strikingly little about it.

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Oh – and bits of northern moorland keep going on fire, and most of the London-based national media has largely ignored it.

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So: anything that increases political pressure to actually tackle this inequality and make everyone pay more attention to the north has to be a good thing.

2. It doesn’t really matter that the founder lives in Brighton

There’s been much snorting in certain bits of the internet that Philip Proudfoot, who founded the party in October last year, lives in Brighton, which is literally as far south as you can get without falling into the sea.

The thing is, loads of northerners have moved for work, because there are more good jobs in the affluent south than in the great cities of the north. This country suffers a huge internal brain drain, in which many kids leave places like Hartlepool and Hull to go to university or to work in London, and then don’t move back again. There’s no contradiction in a County Durham lad living in Brighton thinking this is kind of a bad thing.

3. One by-election probably won’t make an impact

Let’s be honest: the NIP is extremely unlikely to take Hartlepool, and a single MP is unlikely to have all that much influence even if it does. Winning one of the big northern mayoralties would surely provide a better platform – and mayoral elections have historically been more likely to throw up surprising results than parliamentary seats. But those are also being held on 6 May, and the party isn’t contesting them.

Even if it did win a few elections somewhere down the line, it’s not clear what the route to greater northern autonomy actually looks like. The SNP’s position was strengthened massively by the existence of the Scottish Parliament, a body that could plausibly claim a mandate for a referendum. There isn’t a body that could do that for the north. Getting more attention for the north may be the best-case scenario.

4. In fact, it might backfire

I’m open to being proved wrong on this – but the combination of social democratic policies and the party’s more significant figures being ex-Labourites suggests to me that the NIP is more likely to take votes from Labour than the Conservatives or Reform (that’s the artist formerly known as the Brexit Party; do keep up). That surely makes a Tory victory in Hartlepool more likely. And I’m not sure handing another red-wall seat to the governing party will wake up ministers to the need to give more money and attention to anywhere north of Stevenage.

5. It probably won’t get that many votes…

Political parties need more than an Electoral Commission registration and a Twitter feed to function: they need small armies of committed activists to knock on doors and, ideally, acres of press attention. It’s not clear that the NIP has either, which must raise questions about how many voters on 6 May will even be aware of its existence. Which is a problem, if the party wants people to vote for it.

6. …but if it does, that’s not a great sign for British politics

If significant votes do go to a regional party that many observers interpreted as an act of trolling, that probably doesn’t bode brilliantly for either government or opposition. There’s a long way to go between that and “England dissolves after 1,200 years”, but it wouldn’t say great things about the health of the body politic, would it?

7. Italy does this, but sincerely and backwards

The Lega Nord, which has campaigned for greater autonomy or even independence for northern Italy, has been a factor in Italian politics for decades. The difference is the north is the rich bit, and it was trying to rid Padania (as it called the region) of the troubled south.

In recent times, the party has rebranded simply as Lega and started contesting seats elsewhere in the country. The Northern Independence Party could contest Brighton yet.