Originally published in Backbench.
The Prime Minister’s rumoured hand-outs to Northern industrial and mining constituencies in return for backing her Brexit deal are, as far as the region’s inhabitants are concerned, cynical in the extreme. Northern Labour politicians, though they despair for regional investment, are being warned not to accept Conservative ‘charity’. In weaponising government credit, it appears that Theresa May has invalidated austerity as a necessary political project, freeing up Labour to fight the next general election with a seemingly credible alternative.
Of course, we all know the choice facing Labour politicians remains a tough one. Many are inclined to push for Remain, while the majority of Labour constituencies voted to Leave. Seven Labour MPs voted for Graham Brady’s amendment to find ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Irish backstop, while fourteen rebelled against Yvette Cooper’s Corbyn-backed attempt to prevent no-deal.
Those defying the whip were mainly from Leave-backing Northern and Midlands constituencies: Rosie Cooper, Caroline Flint, Ronnie Campbell, Stephen Hepburn and Gareth Snell to name a few. Those defying their governments’ own whip were hard-line Tory Brexiteers. Whether the Labour rebels were driven by commitments to individual constituencies or personal ideological pursuits is irrelevant. What is more important are the Conservative manoeuvrings which this confluence of events has precipitated.
Ever the opportunist, Theresa May has been in talks with certain Labour MPs over whether a ‘transformative’ package of investments in Leave-voting areas could persuade them to help nudge her deal over the line. These are the same deprived industrial towns where the Conservative government has slashed central funding since 2010.
Above all else, this is a dangerous political gesture which seems to undermine the real-life suffering caused by Conservative cutbacks in both the North and the Midlands. To accept handouts would undo decades of staunch Labour support in the expectation that an eventual left-wing government would take regional underinvestment seriously. Defecting to the Conservatives now would be madness.
This is because, regardless of internal Labour divisions over the direction of Brexit, they all agree on one thing: namely that austerity is an arbitrary political choice rather than an economic necessity. By giving away £1.5 billion to Democratic Unionists in 2017 – forgetting the deprivation in nationalist Irish strongholds – and now suddenly finding the space to set aside a ‘multibillion investment fund’ for crippled Northern English constituencies, cutbacks have apparently become negotiable in times of Theresa May’s political need.
Gateshead Council is a case in point. This year, it has been allocated the same local central government budget as the borough of Westminster – which stands at around £200 million for the coming financial year. Gateshead has one of the lowest council-tax bases in the country due to low property value, and the highest demands for social care due to high levels of deprivation. Westminster, on the other hand, regularly generates yearly revenue of over £40 million through parking-ticket fines alone, notwithstanding high council tax income and business rate revenue. For both constituencies to be given the same local government support is evidence that austerity only exists where the government wants it to.
We caught a glimpse of this last October. When detailing the future preoccupations of his ‘Local Infrastructure Rate’, the Chancellor revealed that only five local authorities have so far been successful in bidding for access to investment to support high-value infrastructure projects: three of which are in London.
Instead of threatening punishment for rebel Labour MPs, the Prime Minister’s bribe should now galvanise Labour into collective action. The party must now make genuine efforts to shore-up credibility for its own plans to abandon austerity and rejuvenate forgotten constituencies to avoid sweeping alienation among Leave-backing constituencies. Efforts to rediscover its working-class roots should become a priority. They must draw attention to the blatant inconsistencies in Conservative rhetoric and policy rather than flout confusing and defensive political jargon (what does ‘pork and barrel politics’ even mean?) which doesn’t contend with Theresa May’s offer.
The PM’s tactless talks with individual Labour politicians have proved austerity is not fundamentally necessary, but they’ve also hinted that among distressed communities investment is becoming more important than upholding Labour values. Instead of receiving her handouts as a last-ditch effort to improve living standards, Labour politicians must capitalise on her desperation to launch a comprehensive and attractive solution for tackling regional inequality, based on a solid manifesto that dispenses with ‘book balancing’ in place of equal growth.
This vision is not necessarily incompatible with Brexit, but it is incompatible with the acceptance of one-off Conservative enticements. Investment should be unconditional, not predicated upon the Prime Minister’s need to out-source lost Brexiteer votes and intimidate an EU Commission that isn’t budging on the Northern Irish backstop. The North of England, on this occasion, shouldn’t budge either, but hold out for a far better option.