The Northern Independence Party (NIP) may have begun life as a Twitter joke, but those still scoffing would do well to learn from recent history. Italy’s Five Star Movement erupted into political life on the back of a comedian’s blog, before flipping Italian politics on its head. The Brexit Party, founded in 2018, was a hollow shell but transformed British politics in the short time of its existence (it was renamed Reform UK in January 2021).
Both were helped by money and, crucially, more representative electoral systems than first-past-the-post. But as Paolo Gerbaudo argues in his 2018 book Digital Party, the combination of the increasing political prominence of social media and popular disaffection with the ancien régime has prepared the ground for new kinds of “digital” parties – social media-savvy and light on their feet, able to dance circles round the lumbering analogue giants of the last century.
So from the cheeky whippet on the logo, to the “It’s about bloody time” slogan, the Northern Independence Party is both an in-joke, and entirely serious. When the Brexit Party had Nigel Farage bounding onstage at its launch to the sound of an air-raid siren it was obviously ridiculous – and yet also serious enough to remove a prime minister from office.
When the NIP says it wants an independent “Northumbria”, it shouldn’t be taken entirely literally, but it has to be taken seriously, because the new digital parties present the most threat to the established political order when they zero in on the faultlines of conventional politics, and crack them open.
[See also: Freddie Hayward on whether the NIP can succeed]
Britain’s regional inequality is one of the worst in Europe, with one recent study noting the difference between the poorest and richest places here is greater than that between East and West Germany when the Berlin wall came down. Redistribution through taxation and public spending papered over the flaws, but did not solve the fundamental problem. The bias in Westminster decision-making, documented by economists Diane Coyle and Marianne Sensier, meant that government investment spending was increasingly steered towards London.
The think tank IPPR North calculate that if investment per head in the north matched that in London, it would have been £66bn higher over the last decade. And that weakness in public investment in infrastructure, research and development in turn undermined private sector investment, with businesses in the north finding it far harder to raise funding for growth.
These faultlines have been exacerbated by Covid-19, producing political tremors. Support for Scottish independence has been consistently above 50 per cent since the pandemic began, making the issue of Scotland’s future in the Union inescapable. But polling support for Welsh independence has risen spectacularly too, from fringe levels in the early 2010s to 39 per cent today – the sort of support Scottish independence enjoyed perhaps ten years ago. And Manchester’s mayor Andy Burnham’s fight with Westminster over Covid relief saw him articulating an authentic political voice for the north of England of a kind we have not heard for decades.
In the form of “levelling up”, regional inequality has moved to the centre of national political debate. The north itself today occupies a prime spot in the political imagination, but the dominant vision of it, pushed by the current government and its various outriders, is of a solid bloc of deeply conservative, older, near-exclusively white voters, purportedly unhappy with the takeover of the Labour Party by a London-based, university-educated metropolitan elite, more concerned with woke posturing than with the more authentic concerns of the so-called “Red Wall”.
This is a crude caricature. As political analyst James Kanagasooriam argued in 2019, who coined the term “Red Wall”, the presence of a relatively comfortable middle class in northern seats – recently anatomised by the Economist – could combine with an older, more working-class Tory vote to drive the Conservative breakthrough. There have been northern working-class Conservative voters for as long as there have been northern working-class voters: the real surprise, in Kanagasooriam’s account, is that the Tories have taken so long to crack the “Red Wall” open.
What the NIP proposes instead is an alternative vision of the north, of a kind that Labour was once able to talk about: of a modern, dynamic, egalitarian society, at ease with itself and its place in the world. It was this north of England that Harold Wilson could speak to; but when Labour were returned to power in 1997, it was not a north that New Labour was ever truly comfortable with: lazily banking northern votes by their million, and delivering superficial makeovers for deindustrialised urban centres but failing to lift infrastructure investment or offer a compelling vision for the whole region outside those cities.
If Labour wants to break the Tories’ new voting bloc, it needs a Wilson-style, positive, youthful vision of the north – something that will speak to newer suburbs as well as its core city centre vote. Alex Niven’s book New Model Island puts the case for a new English regionalism: to make this work, Labour would need to drop its centralising habits and its knee-jerk Unionism, embracing devolution and regional and national identities outside of “British”. It would need to not only offer better public services, but the promise of a share in regional economic success, whether through locally-owned businesses or better jobs, and pride in one’s town or city that runs deeper than sticking the Union Jack on the town hall.
The party’s current failure to do this doesn’t mean that the Hartlepool by-election on 6 May, where the NIP plans to stand former Labour MP Thelma Walker, will deliver a seismic political shock. While a by-election lowers the bar for success – and Hartlepool has a notable tradition of doing its own thing electorally – first-past-the-post still sets it enormously high for minor parties. Without the name recognition, the long history of local support, and – crucially for mobilising votes – the contact sheets and detailed knowledge of the political terrain of the older parties, for a new party to clear the 5 per cent threshold to save a deposit is a huge ask.
Without the ground game in place, the NIP faces an uphill struggle, however widely respected and formidable Walker is as a candidate. But straightforward electoral success may not matter, especially if the by-election is tight. UKIP overturned British politics with scarcely an MP to its name. Labour would do well to learn the lesson, and head off the threat.