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Hull may be City of Culture, but it’s still the sceptical place that helped form me

At the foot of the steps is a Hollywood star bearing my name. Well, a Hullywood star.

“Back in Hull eh? Gluttons for punishment,” says a woman who passes us on the street. It seems typically Hull – rueful, self-deprecating, said with a roll of the eye.

 Ben and I are walking round the town centre, recognising much of it, but sadly noting how many shops are closed down, windows boarded up, doorways shuttered. In between the empty premises there are betting shops and pound shops, nail bars and phones, tattoos and loans. Things to help you survive and to make Saturday night go with a bang, the kind of gritty resilience Hull specialises in.

The spectacular minster is being restored, and the old fruit market area is full of cafés with bare-brick walls and scrubbed tables, but many of our old haunts have vanished. Beverley Road Baths is now just a swimming pool and sauna, but those doors used to lead to the old Victorian slipper baths, where we’d come once a week and sit shoulder deep with the tap running in luxuriously hot water, coming out rosy and glowing, hair steamed flat.

We’re here because of 2017 City of Culture, taking part in a spoken-word event with the poet Simon Armitage – but we’re also on something of a sentimental journey. It’s 36 years since I ran up the stairs of the students’ union to find Ben waiting at the top, and now, at the foot of those steps, is a Hollywood star bearing my name. Well, a Hullywood star.

Walking round the campus our ghosts are everywhere. Standing at that bar, sitting in a corner in the library, chucking a wine bottle into the air late one night and watching it sail into the trees. And in the town centre, those empty shops speak of neglect and hard times, but then Hull’s been struggling for a long time.

In the evening we have dinner with old friends Neil and Jacqui, who live just up the road in Hornsea. He played guitar with us on Love Not Money, and she was heavily involved in the campaign to win the City of Culture award; they understand better than we ever could what it means for Hull.

Neil works running hostels for the homeless, and talks unflinchingly about local realities: the second and third generation unemployment, and the resulting spirals of poverty and addiction. But still they are full of praise for how well this year is going, describing with pride the extraordinary number of brilliant events. Despite our questions about whether or not any of it is helping where the help is actually needed, they are positive about the future, and the investment that has been promised for regeneration and legacy.

For Hull is a survivor. No-nonsense, down-to-earth, unshowy, it helped form me. When I went back down to London I jumped straight into the role of trying to be a pop star, but something of Hull’s innate scepticism stayed with me – sometimes making things more difficult, but at other times helping steer me away from the rocks.

Next day we walk past the new pavement cafés on Princes Avenue, down to Ella Street, which has become home to an art installation, The Street of Birds and Shadows. It’s a quietly beautiful piece of public art – birds painted onto planters, quotes from poems stencilled onto garden walls. It pre-dates the Year of Culture, and reminds us that Hull was no wasteland before being granted this cultural honour.

That poetic streak and poetic heritage runs from Andrew Marvell through to Philip Larkin, and sits side-by-side with Hull’s sense of isolation; the self-containment summed up by its separate phone exchange with its cream phone boxes, and its bridge leading only to itself.

And now, the city is hosting the Turner Prize, at the Ferens Art Gallery. The room screening Rosalind Nashashibi’s film Vivian’s Garden is packed, the crowd transfixed, and yet, when the film ends, the man behind us mutters, “What was all that about then?” and I can’t help laughing in recognition of that relentless determination never to be taken in, that independent spirit of defiance, which keeps Hull alive. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.