You can’t deny it – Boris Johnson is making waves up North

At least in rhetoric, Boris Johnson is hailing a dubious era of investment in England’s Northern hemisphere. Not unlike all those politicians that have gone before him, he has promised to splash out on education, the NHS and Northern transport, pledging a Northern Powerhouse Rail modelled on London’s Crossrail. He’s stated his intent to preserve and restore British Steel, a dominant force in the North East’s economy, while also turning Teesport into a ‘free port’ – thus gifting it with preferential trading arrangements. He’s even thrown in a commitment to improving provision for special needs education, which will give a small lifeline to local constituencies such as Durham, who earlier this year expressed a ‘debt crisis in SEND provision’ to the tune of £5.6 million.

These are hardly the dramatic bailouts the region would hope for: though they look like massive giveaways when compared with the stinginess of governments prior.

By conveniently rediscovering the Tories’ ‘magic money tree’ and pledging to divert a substantial chunk of it across Northern England, while making tangible commitments to a No-Deal Exit, Boris is doing something genius. He is appealing directly to the region’s staunch Lexiteers: left-wingers who want Brexit but rely heavily on public services. If austerity was the only thing keeping many Northern Labour strongholds semi-resistant to Conservative rule, Boris’s unorthodox political approach – and frank borrowing of long-held Labour manifesto pledges – may just clinch their support.

Of course, many other politicians, such as George Osborne, have made similarly blasé commitments which have failed to materialise. But Boris knows it’s different this time because of Brexit. Fed up with Labour’s lack of clarity on the issue – among the fact that all-but-one North Eastern constituency voted to Leave in 2016 – the region is perfect breeding ground for Boris’s new, patriotic, spend-heavy Brexit Britain. While the ‘Boris Bounce’ seemed muted in the Brecon by election, its impact in the North East is untested but guaranteed. This is mainly because of the region’s specific dynamics: high suicide rates, high unemployment figures, low immigration, a dominant age demographic between 40-55, a propensity to have voted Brexit and a history of voting Labour. Many Northern Labour MPs now fear a general election precisely because they know they might get turfed out. It doesn’t matter that Boris’s promises are most likely bluster and will damage the North East in the long-run. All he needs is to get his no-deal over the line.

In reality, Boris’s entire strategy will serve only to destroy the limited infrastructure the North of England has. The Confederation of British Industry has explicitly warned that the North-East will be hardest hit by a No-Deal Brexit because of the threats to its manufacturing industries and the region’s reliance on the EU as an export market. Bridget Philipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, recently tweeted a snapshot of the economic damage no-deal would inflict on her constituency – regardless of the spending Boris has pledged. She said: ‘Brexit will not make Sunderland richer, more equal or more free. Around 60% of our exports go to the EU and, on a per job basis, we export more into the EU than any other British City.’ Later, she added: ‘Johnson wants my city and my constituents to pay the price for him to stay in Downing Street. A No-Deal Brexit was hardly mentioned back in 2016, but it will wipe out jobs and industry.’

So, then, as Boris continues to make waves up North, by showcasing his devout commitment to anti-austerity, a Brexit that ‘works for everyone’ and the burgeoning potential of the ‘powerhouse of the North’, he sacrifices ever more livelihoods for his own political gain. Who knows what the result of that will be?


Gateshead Head Teacher Andrew Ramanandi: ‘I’m still positive about the future of our state-funded schools’

Last week, Regionalitics spoke to Mr Ramanandi, Headteacher at St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Gateshead and architect of the petition ‘Increase Funding for Schools’. Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Ramanandi vows to remain both positive and hopeful about the long-term prospects for the UK’s state-funded education – despite the evident challenges facing the sector.

‘I’m encouraged because MPs across all parties and all regions are recognising the need to paint a national picture’, he said. ‘We’re all looking to cut staff, cut back on activities for children and non-core enrichment such as music and art. We aren’t in this position because of mismanagement. It’s because the money just isn’t there. This petition and associated debate made that clear: this isn’t about politics.’

But for all his unstilted confidence that the DfE will inevitably concede to real-terms funding increases in primary and secondary schools, a quick look at the data presents one difficult question: how?

Above all else, there’s the frustrating veneer of resistance by Government to truly grasp the gravity of the situation. Ministers continue to draw on comparisons with 1990 and 2000 funding-levels, maintaining that ‘more money is going into our schools than ever before’. Factually incorrect in real-terms, ‘School Cuts’ monitoring and activism service, maintained by the National Education Union, stress that 9 in 10 schools in England have faced cuts to per-pupil funding since 2015: that’s £5.4bn.

One headteacher based in Durham told me that the local authority is facing a budget shortfall of £5.6 million in special educational needs provision over the next financial year, with the money having to come out of the general council budget on a one-off basis. Even in stoutly Conservative authorities, such as West Sussex, rural schools are suffering from unprecedented cut-backs to resources, teaching and non-teaching staff. Ministers are so wrapped-up in fruitless debates around Brexit that they are refusing to listen to the plight of MPs from their own political party.

Information provided by the Commons Library echoes the concerns of the National Head Teachers Association and the National Governance Association, revealing that ‘there has been a clear decline in spending in the five years from 2012-2013 onwards.’ According to that same Commons Library data, public spending per head on education in 2016-2017 remained highest in London at around £1,600. It was lowest in the South East and South West of England at £1,200.

Even more frustrating was Education Minister Nick Gibb’s concluding remarks in the Commons debate prompted by Mr Ramanandi’s petition. Besides reiterating tired taunts that schools are receiving unprecedented levels of funding when measured by other means, Mr Gibb also suggested that head teachers use a ‘new benchmarking service’ to compare their school’s financial data with similar schools – and spend less money on advertising for recruitment. Gibb seemed unaware that ‘benchmarking’ is a practice which has been used by teachers for many years, and that recruitment advertising swallows a tiny proportion of school’s overall budgets. The overwhelming perception by the Government remains that teachers’ failures to ‘balance the books’ is down to financial mismanagement rather than their own flippancy.

While Mr Ramanandi agrees that the Commons’ debate itself was rather deflating, he tells me that his positivity isn’t because of an immediate expectation that teachers’ demands will be met without delay. Rather, teachers are concentrating on pushing for change in anticipation of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

‘What you’ll actually find is that this isn’t a regional issue: nor is it a case of inner-city areas versus their rural counterparts. Everyone is facing a squeeze’, he said.

‘If you remember “The London Challenge”, a programme launched by the UK’s Labour Government in 2003, that completely transformed the capital’s state education system. That’s why so many MPs outside of London now talk about this ‘fair-funding’ model: the idea that money should be available based on need. Headteachers and MPs nation-wide don’t want to take money away from other schools; they just want more money in the system. They want to see the kind of transformation that took place in London but never reached the outskirts. I’m confident that sooner or later the government will realise boosting educational attainment everywhere is in everyone’s interests.’

Brexit, of course, is getting in the way for now. But the National Head Teachers Association continue to take ‘all steps necessary to achieve the aim of a 10-year funding plan for schools.’ The NAHT annual conference recently backed a motion committing the union to industrial action if persistent underfunding is not addressed in the spending review. NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman told the BBC that the union will ‘work with government, advise and campaign.’ Meanwhile, Durham Councillor Olwyn Gunn, Cabinet member for children and young people’s services, added that she hoped ‘intense lobbying will result in increased funding from the 2020/21 Comprehensive Spending Review’.

‘This is why I’m positive’, Mr Ramanandi admits, ‘because I know that the messages delivered by teachers and local authorities nationwide will reach the DfE loud and clear. We live in very uncertain times. It’s difficult to know who will even be in power by the Autumn. But our children still need to be educated. This petition and debate showed that education is a topic MPs care very strongly about. Education underpins everything else in society. It has to move up the Government’s priority list.’

The onus now, of course, falls squarely upon the heads of Government. Only time will tell if Mr Ramanandi’s position is justified. I’m sure many teachers will not be feeling quite so reassured.

I’ve got no problem with a People’s Vote campaign – just the campaigners

Last weekend was a biggie for Remainers: and didn’t the whole world know it.

A petition demanding the revocation of Article 50 – the process by which any country should wish to leave the European Union – gained enormous traction on national and social media; and a People’s Vote March raged through Central London demanding Brexit ‘be put back to the people.’

Admittedly, there’s nothing anti-democratic about a People’s Vote. It’s a feasible solution for breaking the Brexit deadlock once indicative votes have revealed which EU-exit route appears the most advantageous. But as a vehicle through which to overturn Brexit in its entirety? That’s anti-democratic.

It all boils down to an issue with the campaigners themselves. They’ve hijacked the People’s Vote as a bid for Remain rather than an opportunity to validate the initial result – and in doing so, they’re refusing to acknowledge the democratic will of half the population. And in doing that, they turn over that same half-population to the hands of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Initially, I hated Brexit. Why would my constituency, Gateshead, which relies on the EU for infrastructure investment, bite off the hand that feeds them?

But then I came to understand something that none of the People’s Vote Campaigners (PVCs) seem willing to grasp. A Leave vote might well have been disastrous, but it worked in making a statement. Though the PVCs may brand Leave-voters as political illiterates operating under the puppeteer-hand of the ‘far-right’, they can’t deny that they’ve definitely grabbed the attention of negligent governments and an over-mighty City service sector; who, for their part, appear callously oblivious to bitter regional divides.

It sounds very dramatic – but the reasoning is fair enough. That’s why I can’t quite wage war on Brexit the same way the PVCs have; and why I’m getting sick of sanctimonious marchers who think they’re doing the country an ounce of good by giving up their Saturday to wave around some cardboard.

Still, I’m fully aware that the North East is better off in the EU than outside of it. Left to the government alone, the North East will starve. The Confederation of British Industry has already bemoaned the scale of economic loss the region would be exposed to under a disorderly EU departure. But it’s really saying something when, despite knowing all this, people are still willing to make such a huge sacrifice to have their decision heard and implemented (with very few people who voted Leave actually changing their minds, regardless of what PVC-sponsored YouGov polls tell you).

Quite frankly, the People’s Vote campaign has become a self-sabotaging mess. Rather than argue, reasonably and democratically, for retention of reformed EU membership in order to enhance regional prosperity, level out national inequalities and hold a clearly-delusional government to account (you know, things which might actually persuade people to change their minds) – the selling point of the People’s Vote appears to be an immediate return to the status quo. The very thing that everyone voted against.

From up here – the status quo looks like a situation where affluent Southerners retain easy access to their continental homes, regain the £10,000 in value knocked off their London-properties, and avoid those inconvenient strikes on the Eurostar. But in that scenario, the North-East still receives no cultural funding or infrastructure investment, and former mining communities continue to be left to their own devices with minimal revenue support-grants from the government.

Nowhere is this alliance between the PVCs and well-off clearer than in the selection of allies they have chosen to champion their cause: Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve and Michael Heseltine – all Conservative (or formerly Conservative) MPs that have willingly supported austerity.

These are individuals that have consciously, in part, manufactured the divide that now exists between London and its peripheries. So, how are they supposed to fix it? Their love for the EU, weirdly enough, doesn’t outweigh the damage their party has waged on its own people. There’s something particularly disturbing in the way Michael Heseltine, former front-man to Thatcher, noted in his PV March speech that Maggie would be turning in her grave if she were alive to witness Brexit. Everyone cheered in response. Does that mean we now remember her as a sagacious Europhile, more so than as the architect of devastation in the very places that voted to Leave…?

And then, there’s the genuinely unforgivable assumption by PVCs that young people unanimously voted to Remain – with the consequence that non-university educated electors have been virtually ignored.

The PVC’s youth contingent is exclusively represented by young people of Our Future Our Choice and For Our Future’s Sake (OFOC and FFS). Unfortunately, while they might be eloquent and informed, both groups are hopelessly metropolitan organisations that claim, incorrectly, to speak for ‘young people’ as though they were one, singular, homogeneous, degree-level-educated and Erasmus-appreciating mass. Which, as we all know, they aren’t.

And rather than reach out to older people in deprived areas, who have seen their communities disintegrate around them – and have been led to believe this stems from immigration and open borders rather than by governmental neglect – the PVCs have paraded snobbish placards around the streets of London: taunting half of the electorate with tasteless witticisms that seem to suggest their bigoted stupidity.

One such placard boasted: ‘52% Pride and Prejudice; 48% Sense and Sensibility’. Hmm, maybe take a look in the mirror?

Labour MPs, for one thing, should not give into the PVC’s demands, but embrace what their constituents asked for (and with that I nod my hat to Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields). With a support base of which almost 70% voted to Leave, Labour’s proposal of retaining access to the customs union and ‘close alignment with the single market’ is the best option to pursue, lest they risk further entrenching a toxic national divide which is in nobody’s interests to perpetuate.

Ultimately, a People’s Vote should be a free-vote: where consensus from all sides of the political spectrum can be found regarding how to leave the EU. Currently, however, its proponents are damaging its credibility by way of their obstinate elitism – those same traits they so fervidly criticise when found among Brexiteers. And for that reason, the PVCs will never have my support. Not that they want it, anyway.

Brexit might just be a productive disaster

Two nights ago, in a widely-acknowledged ‘blame game’, Theresa May backhandedly suggested MPs were at fault for the Brexit stalemate – and that she alone shares the public’s ‘frustration’.  The day after, Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom, in her well-publicised feud with John Bercow, criticised the Speaker for telling Tory MP Sir Peter Bottomley to ‘grow up’ as he loudly heckled Labour MP John Cryer – who dubbed Theresa May’s performance the night before as ‘one of the most contemptuous statements I’ve ever heard’. This came on the back of news that opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, stormed out of a cross-party meeting because Chuka Umunna, The Independent Group’s standing representative, was present when, in matter of fact, ‘he wasn’t a real party leader.’

This begs the question: are we right to feel totally pessimistic at the current state of affairs in our deeply divided political system? Are we right to despair at the hopeless cadre of our floundering leaders? The answer is yes and no. While it’s depressingly true that inequality is at its worst level for decades, public trust in political leadership is all-but-absent, regional prosperity is non-existent and nothing seems likely to change any time soon, it’s also the case that this fiasco could be exactly what Max Weber termed a ‘productive disaster’.

As a prospective political candidate that failed to get elected, Weber spent ages poring over German parliamentary systems. He was writing in the early 1900s – just before European affairs were about to take a nasty turn – and identified the most important feature of modern politics: that of perpetual conflict and struggle.

Instead of viewing politics as the profession of idealistic peace-keeping, he recognised that it is precisely because of the impossibility of total peace and prosperity that parliament can nurture and elevate genuine talent. Crisis, believe it or not, gives people a chance to shine and become creative, charismatic individuals (as well as weeding out the ones who haven’t got what it takes).

Most importantly – and nobody can deny this – Weber argued that political conflict is the only thing which keeps citizens politically educated and engaged: preventing individual liberty from being buried under unaccountable civil service bureaucracies (who do everything secretly, under the guise of specialised ‘officialdom’). The 2016 EU referendum, as we know, boasted an unprecedented turnout of 72.2% – with 33.6 million exercising their right to vote. In effect: Brexit has, for all the wrong reasons, forced us to become politically literate, and awoken us from our passivity.

Weber’s beef back in 1900s Germany was with Otto von Bismarck and the Kaiser: two Prussian Conservative leaders that had reduced parliament to bureaucratic shells – quashing all diversity of opinion and the space for new leaders to rise and gain prominence. Their mess-ups, unbelievably, caused even more grief than Brexit (like a World War).

Weber recognised the cynicism of his line of reasoning, but decided that WW1, in many respects, was an opportunity. The horrible, crushing defeat by the Allies – though awful for German citizens who had been humiliated on the international stage – killed off the Emperor’s uselessly bureaucratic rule, giving parliament a chance to assume greater power and dictate policy. It also afforded citizens opportunity to become a ‘nation of masters’: this being a people who cared about their political destiny and strove to shape it.

Weirdly enough, the model for Weber’s theory of ‘charismatic leadership’ was William Ewart Gladstone. Liberal British parliamentarian for over 60 years, and many-times over British Prime Minister, his proto-populist campaigns of the late 19th century rallied his electorate round to his cause – whatever that may be – and stopped the stagnation of parliament, society and culture in general.

By constantly changing tack – whether it be quitting the Conservative Party only to attack it from opposition benches, or crusading against Irish Home Rule and then crusading for Home Rule – Gladstone kept the political landscape alight with passion, persuasion and public engagement. His ability to flexibly bend towards voter sentiment was not seen as disingenuous tactlessness, but strength of his virtues as a parliamentarian.

Contrast the era of Gladstonianism with stagnating, rigidly adversarial political parties of 21st century Britain, beset with pointless in-fighting and a tendency to become bogged down by dogma, discipline and technicalities rather than national interest and voter opinion – something both parties are guilty of.

But already, we’re starting to see elements of Weber’s back-against-the-wall productivity coming to the fore.

We know that it is likely Theresa May will resign should her deal be defeated again, or possibly even before; and already, we know that scores of Labour MPs are unhappy with the Party’s current leadership. Tom Watson has delivered an urgent warning to Jeremy Corbyn to ‘reach out to all wings of the party’ or risk further alienation and even more defections to The Independent Group, while many other Northern and Midland Labour MPs feel the front-bench’s commitment to a second referendum is a betrayal of voter trust and direction. Emma Lewell-Buck was among a group of defiant Labour MPs that ignored Corbyn’s whip to abstain in a second referendum vote, already showing greater independence and a nascent disintegration of overly-partisan structures.

To many, this breakdown of traditional party-political edifices is worrying: but it is also an episode that history will look favourably upon. If through all this tired Brexit haze and broken-record rhetoric emerges new talent, new ideas, new opportunities and new thinking (and even if all of it goes to nothing and we end up with a second referendum and or a revocation of Article 50), you can best believe that people will, ultimately, somehow somewhere, be intellectually better off for it. In other words – let’s embrace Brexit, embrace radical change and embrace an historic recasting of an out-of-date political landscape.

For Theresa May, alientating the ERG is an inevitability. Why not reach out to Labour?

It’s regrettable, but if there’s one thing that Jacob Rees-Mogg and I have in common, it’s an undying love for historical analogy. Today marks nearly 8 months since the ERG-frontman advised Theresa May against relying on Labour votes to push her Brexit deal through Parliament, with a disparaging comparison to prime-ministerial forebear Sir Robert Peel. Thankfully, though, mine and Mogg’s similarities end there.

Rees-Mogg reckons Peel is the archetypal example of what-not-to-do as British Prime Minister In Crisis. I happen to disagree.

On 15 May 1846, Peel’s successful repeal of the Corn Laws came at the cost of fracturing his own Conservative Party. While they stood for the protection of agricultural interests and the Corn Law mechanism – which forbade the import of cheap grain from overseas – Peel emerged a crusading, Liberal-leaning Free Trader, with absolutely no desire to placate his country-dwelling colleagues. He gleefully teamed up with the opposition and consequently left his own party out in the lurch. Peel then resigned, and the Whig opposition saw an historic opening on the benches of Westminster (that just so happened to remain open until 1868).

In light of this, Rees-Mogg’s warning was clear: pursuing Peel’s ‘very dangerous’ path of cross-party fraternisation would be a strain-too-far for May’s wavering band of ministerial support.

Fortunately, the Moggite interpretation of history is only for men who care about power, Conservative majorities, and nothing of the national interest. And as Brexit edges ever-closer, it is one that Theresa May would do increasingly well to leave behind.

Most importantly, what Rees-Mogg’s half-baked characterisation failed to mention is that Peel’s actions – while ‘splitting’ the febrile opinion and allegiance of the privileged few – saved the Irish population from the disastrous potato famine, protected the working-class against unnecessary taxes, and avoided debilitating provincial unrest between landlords and city-dwellers. Yes, he lost his party and his decision cost him his career. But he saved millions, and could resign a man with principle and integrity.

As news breaks that the government is preparing a £1.6 billion package to Northern and Midland Labour-constituencies, it would seem the Prime Minister has already begun to renege on her promise that this will be a Conservative Brexit, pushed through by Conservative votes alone. But she needs to rethink the half-hearted element of the cross-party compromise, and replace it with something far more substantial.

Unsurprisingly, Labour, and indeed many of May’s own colleagues, have plenty to say about the insufficient care-package: not much of which is positive. Lib-Dem QC Lord Thomas of Gresford suggested on Twitter that May’s aid offering constituted a breach of the Bribery Act (2010), while John McDonnell publicly slammed the Prime Minister for only now trying to ‘tackle burning injustices.’ Anna Soubry, ex-conservative and Independent Group defector, claimed that ‘voters won’t be fooled by it’. Even Gareth Snell, who represents the constituency with the highest pro-Brexit vote in 2016 (Stoke Central) – and who has voted with the government against the Grieve, Cooper and Reeves amendments – asserted that ‘there is no price on my vote.’ 

On top of this, The Evening Standard reported another ‘sticking point’: funding was supposed to be meted out over four years, not the six the Prime Minister is now proffering. This means the fund works out at only £266 million a year, and doesn’t even scratch the surface of cuts to local council budgets. Neither does it come anywhere near the money invested in the UK’s regions by the EU.

At this point, it’s safe to say Theresa May is on the verge of precipitating national crisis. Not only are the ERG holding a gun to the government’s head with calls to meet unachievable ‘tests’ (like imposing a time limit on the backstop), as well as thinly-veiled threats to whip MPs against voting down no deal, but recent events show that the Prime Minister has managed to irritate literally everyone else with her bizarre and damaging aid-offering.

There is an ideological hypocrisy in the government that refuses to deal with its opposition on the one hand, but offers hush-money to pliable Labour ministers in the hope of turning heads. It makes absolutely no sense.

This being the case, it’s high time that the Prime Minister got on board with Peel’s strategic philosophy in the face of national calamity. It’s inevitable that Theresa May will have to alienate the ERG at some point, because their demands are unrealistic and their numbers do not constitute a majority in themselves. Like Peel, she must now fully embrace the opposition, as well as moderate Conservatives among her own ranks, with a genuinely acceptable deal that builds on the initial referendum result. That way, Labour lose their moral legitimacy in advocating a People’s Vote.

Peel was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of his Kingdom: Theresa May must now do the same. The ERG will feel betrayed, but at least the country won’t be reduced to a quivering wreck of regional division, unequal prosperity, seething hostility and total mistrust in our elected representatives. 

The North-East is doomed – it has been for a thousand years. But does it have to be this way?

Originally published in Backbench.

1066 is an important date in British history. It was the year William the Conqueror landed in Hastings ready to wrench the throne from the deserving (and probably dashing) English King, Harold Godwinson. But this didn’t just initiate sweeping changes in landscapes and government. It launched Anglo-Saxon England into a turbulent millennia of North-South civil unrest which continues to this day. 

The North’s seething animosity towards its Southern counterpart is more than an extended response to the violent class wars of the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher and her band of ‘dry’ economic disciples no doubt ring-fenced Northern prosperity for decades to come and intensified regional-metropolitan divides. But her crippling of Northern manufacturing industries is less important than the fact that she felt this was historically and politically acceptable – and, as a matter of fact, ‘necessary’. Why is that?

Go back 1000 years, and we find her predecessor in Duke William II of Normandy. His ‘Harrying of the North’, which involved ‘wasting’ land in an effort to deter rebellious Northern lords, established a precedent. This was the strategic and ‘necessary’ depletion of the region’s population, community and sustenance in an effort to solidify centralised governance and consolidate Norman rule. 

A 1/3 of Yorkshire was declared uninhabitable as a result. This raid laid the foundations for an embittered Northern separatist movement that has ever since struggled to wrestle itself from the yoke of Norman London and its descendants.

As the South quickly ‘Europeanised’ through trade with modern-day France, the North was weakened and subdued. York, once a powerful political contender to London, was demoted. The Archbishop of Canterbury was made supreme, with the Archbishopric of York left flailing in the remnants of its former importance. Vital trade with Scandinavia was cut off. 

Today, the castles that litter the Scottish border and East Coast of Northumberland are relics of a Norman plot that drove northern communities inwards and stripped them of their autonomy.

Unbeknownst to William, this was not to be a temporary phenomenon: it condemned the North, and particularly the North-East, to a fated political subservience that has proven all-but-impossible to overcome.

The political consequences of the Battle of Hastings are still being felt today – even if historical impasses allowed for the temporary levelling out of regional inequalities. 

Almost 800 years after the Norman Conquest, a brief pattern of co-industriousness between North and South emerged during the time of the Industrial Revolution. Back then, the North fed the capital with its vast reserves of coal and enjoyed a prodigious, though short-lived, prosperity. But fast-forward to the 1980s and Thatcher’s brutal policies signify a return to normality: a vicious re-imposition of an entrenched North-South divide that politicians feel far more comfortable with. 

Stripping Northerners of their rights in the 11th and 12th centuries was a tragedy, but imposing inequality upon them in the 21st century has far more sinister consequences. Lower life expectancies, higher suicide rates, consistently high levels of unemployment, lower central investment on infrastructure projects and culture, less spending per person on education and transport, hardly any attention in the national media and next to no representation in political professions: these are all innumerable realities that pervade parts of Northern England without any justifiable cause other than careful neglect. 

It’s no surprise that the Confederation of British Industry estimates that the North-East region will be the hardest-hit under a ‘No-Deal Brexit’, or that government support rate to Northern councils is among the highest-cut in the country. This has simply become tradition.

Indefensibly, most governments view the North-South divide as a historically determined reality over which they have no control, obviating government obligation to reverse the decay and rendering it politically fatal to commit to doing so.  George Osborne gave it a feeble attempt with his ‘Northern Powerhouse’ solution, but this hasn’t materialised in any substantive sense. 

Democratic politics commonly consists of five-year cycles that leave little time to address regional disparity with any genuineness. Just like New Labour’s stint, which did so little to revivify the North during its time in power, Jeremy Corbyn’s plans to rejuvenate the High Street will equally fall flat without adequate funding proposals and attempts to create sincere power-sharing regional authorities. Simply preventing high-street bank closures is not enough. Theresa May’s assertion, meanwhile, that the North East will ‘not be left behind’ after Brexit is highly dubious.

Norman Tebbit – one of Thatcher’s closest aides during her time in government – expressed remorse at the way the Thatcher government treated Northern mining communities many years after the damage had been done. In 2009, he claimed that the enormous ‘devastation’ inflicted by closures ‘went too far’ – ‘with people out of work turning to drugs and no real man’s work because all the jobs had gone.’ There is no doubt, he admitted, ‘that this led to a breakdown in these communities with families breaking up and youths going out of control.’

Perhaps David Cameron and Theresa May will, in due course, express their own forms of nostalgic regret about the way their governments have slashed resources and investment for deprived Northern communities. But what good is this to those who have suffered at the hands of a recurrent insensitive elite?

An EU membership referendum and then supposedly ‘Delivering on Brexit’, will not, contrary to Cameron and May’s electoral logic, make the North feel adequately ‘listened to’ or represented by those in Westminster in the long run. It will not undo years of deliberate political devastation. We need a far deeper reassessment of the country’s fundamental regional power prejudices if we ever hope to emulate a civilised nation; starting with acknowledgement that regional disparity is anathema rather than an inevitable state of affairs.  If we fail on this account, it’s clear that the next millennia will unfurl in the exact same way as the last one. The North will remain doomed, and history will happily repeat itself. 

Why are MPs clueless about what the people want? Because they don’t represent ordinary voters

Originally published in Shout Out UK.

The Brexit impasse is maddening for ordinary voters who seek clarification and compromise from the British governing class — but it’s not the only reason the public is growing frustrated with their elected Members of Parliament.

In recent years, more numbers of women and candidates of ethnic minority status are being elected to the House. However, these promising signs mask the dark reality that ordinary voters have become increasingly voiceless in Westminster — and they’re getting pretty sick of it.

Latest government statistics reveal the full extent of this developing gulf between Parliament and its electorate in terms of educational and occupational background — which has inexcusably worsened since the 2000s. The 29 per cent of politicians elected in 2017 that attended fee-paying schools, for example, is over four-times the 7 per cent amongst the UK population as a whole.

Of the 82 per cent that hold a degree, 29 per cent have come from Oxbridge — a higher percentage than the total number of UK degree-holders (only 27.2 per cent). By way of comparison, over the period 1918-45, only 40 per cent of MPs belonged to the graduate class. Unlike then, apparently the ‘representative’ element of representational democracy is now optional.

Even within the Labour Party — the political grouping most committed to representing working-class voters — 84 per cent of 2017-elected MPs were graduates. That’s up from 59 per cent in 1979. In fact, the Labour Party is now almost exclusively run by public-sector or managerial professionals belonging squarely to the middle class. Jeremy Corbyn himself does not escape this charge, living out his entire political career in the prosperous suburbs of Islington North. Gone are the days when the party was buoyed by higher rates of regional miners, manual labourers, teachers, and non-university educated representatives. It appears that working-class credentials are simply tokenistic extras in a party-political system that relies on an educated bureaucracy.

There is a bleak conclusion to be drawn from all this — that the majority of Commons representatives share little direct experience with the constituents they claim to represent. This is not irrelevant: feeling adequately represented by your MP is precisely what distinguishes functioning democracy from an elective aristocracy in disguise. Members in representative democracies aren’t necessarily elected because they ‘know best’, but because they are typically one of the few self-selecting choices available. MPs need to avoid haughty presumptions that they understand their constituents’ needs better than they do.

The reasons behind this narrowing social distinction in the House of Commons are varied. One obvious issue of concern is the rising cost of becoming a politician. Recent estimates from The Spectator put the current price tag at a hefty £34,000 — on account of travel expenses, foregone salary and London living costs. Others are more endemic to Britain’s electoral system. For one thing, there are currently no requirements that MPs seeking election must represent the geographic region they live, or have lived in: amongst voting constituencies in the 2016 referendum, only half of MPs did so.

London in particular is over-represented in terms of the MPs it produces — resulting in their inevitable migration elsewhere. Even if well-intentioned, the absence of affinity between local constituents and migrating parliamentary candidates can lead to a breakdown of trust in the representative system. In short, these ‘migratory MPs’ are often viewed simply as university-educated political employees serving their constituents on a superficially contractual basis. The community they represent is emphatically not ‘theirs’, and as such, there is no genuine connection between member and voter.

The consequences of this pattern are becoming increasingly evident as the Brexit debate plays out. It is widely reported, for example, that Labour’s ‘grassroots’ favour pushing for a second referendum — with a view to Remain in the EU. However, using grassroots in this context is erroneous — since only the Labour membership backs a second referendum and is stringently pro-Remain. Seventy-one MPs have backed this commitment in a signed statement, while half a dozen came out in public support of the People’s Vote policy hours before Parliament’s no-confidence debate. Given that 6/10 Labour MPs represent Leave-voting constituencies, acquiescing to the demands of the membership alone would be electoral suicide. There is a widely held sentiment in Leave areas that politicians are refusing to take into account the expectations of their constituents. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that many life-loyal Labour voters are now considering voting Conservative if only to guarantee Brexit.

Ultimately, unless politics is democratised — by introducing higher pay, stricter representative requirements and an emphasis on suitability rather than educational and occupational background — the Brexit saga will continue to effectively wrestle control away from Parliament through violent and dangerous means. As certain individuals respond negatively to the perception that they are being ignored (recall ‘Soubry is a Nazi’ outside Parliament!) — the possibility of violence is growing more immediate. Politicians need to swiftly take stock of the breach of faith between themselves and their electorate before the recent barrage of verbal vitriol explodes into something far more sinister.

Anti-Brexit group publishes report on ‘Real Agenda of the Brexiteers’ marking a new low for People’s Vote campaigners

Originally published in Shout Out UK.

The student-run anti-Brexit group For Our Future’s Sake has this month released an exposé on the ‘real agenda’ of the so-called ‘Brextremists’.  Featuring a series of decontextualised and out-of-date comments spoken by Conservative politicians, the document attempts to demonstrate a ‘categoric’ imperative by Brexiteers to overhaul the NHS, destroy workers’ rights, reinforce sexual inequality and decry environmental protections — all under the guise of leaving the EU. However, the unsubtle attempt by FFS to vilify those on the political right showcases the hard-left’s equally explicit political agenda: that of overturning Brexit at any cost.

While morally denouncing the Brexiteers’ politics as part of a regressive, ‘backwards’ agenda, For Our Future’s Sake conveniently overlooks its own self-serving political ambition. The report, entitled ‘The Real Agenda of the Brexiteers, presents to its readers a handful of provocative and selective declarations made by Conservative politicians — some over 20-years-old — that seemingly validate FFS’s demands for a People’s Vote.

Chris Grayling, we are told, argued that national minimum-wage requirements should not apply to those with learning disabilities in 1998. John Redwood, meanwhile, undermined the scientific proof of human-induced climate change in 2008. Ten years later, in 2018, Tory Peer Lord Ribeiro questioned the usefulness of EU workers’ directives that protect employment standards and wages. Boris Johnson, in 2002, floated the idea of a privatised NHS as being ‘greater appreciated’: Daniel Hannan, on the other hand, scandalously suggested in 2009 that the NHS didn’t ‘work’ at all.  Jacob Rees-Mogg, more recently, is revealed to have said he could ‘not care in the least’ about ‘chlorinated chicken’; and Andrea Leadsom, in 2016, restated her view that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

The statements, when read holistically and out of context, serve to create an overall image of Conservative Brexiteers as radical megalomaniacs bent on destroying basic human rights. According to the report, Brexiteers — in which Theresa May is included — all see EU withdrawal as the ‘vehicle’ through which right-wing social and economic agendas can be discreetly enforced. The idea of an ominous, conspiratorial, Brexiteer presence depicted by FFS is an ironic one: it exists as a disturbing mimicry of Brexiteers’ own portrayal of the EU in the run-up to the 2016 referendum. This time, a few comments about the NHS and minimum wage have transplanted memorable case studies about bendy bananas and ounces and pounds. ‘Brussels’ Elites’, in the report, has been substituted for ‘Brexit Elites’.

In actuality, the ‘real’ nasty character traits of Brexiteers, as the public know them, are not their right-wing views (which, in a functioning democracy, the politicians are entitled to), but their misuse of words, facts and figures in a deliberate intention to mislead — remember the £350m on the side of the bus? Unfortunately, FFS’s catalogue of quotations attributed to Theresa May between 1998 and 1999 do just that. They misrepresent her current political stance and proven track record in order to spin a certain narrative.

The report alludes to numerous comments made in 1998 and 99, where May stated that the EU Social Chapter could be a ‘burden for business’ and suggested that many employers cannot afford to implement it. The report then claims, that in the Prime Minister’s ‘own words’, she has therefore attacked workers’ rights — and this makes her one of the right-wing, Brexit ‘crony’ elites. Unfortunately, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone entertaining this view after May’s most recent vote of confidence result. It’s clear that disgruntled Brexiteers made up the large part of the 117 Tory MPs that cried ‘no confidence’ in their leader.

As recorded in Hansard, and re-quoted in the report, the PM is noted to have said the following on the 28 April 1999:

‘The impact of employment legislation, particularly the loss of income for pre-schools caused by the loss of numbers, is exacerbated in a variety of ways by the increased costs of the minimum wage and the working time directive’.

In the report, this is followed by the words: ‘The Prime Minister has called the minimum wage costly’, without any effort to contextualise the quotation. When evidence is presented in this way, it has no persuasive force. It looks as disjointed, randomised and opportunistic as something Boris himself would come out with — and flaunts the same underhand techniques that Brexiteers are often degraded for.

FFS itself is guilty of Brexiteer-like arrogance by dismissing those individuals who voted Leave for genuine, and valid, reasons.  Despite 70 per cent of Labour constituencies voting to Leave, and only 47 Labour MPs voting against the triggering of Article 50 in 2017, the report’s foreword, signed off by David Lammy and Caroline Lucas, argues that opposing Brexit is an ideological obligation for those on the political left.

Likewise, the organisation claims to give ‘young people across the UK’ a chance to ‘stand up and be counted’. However, since the movement was founded at the NUS 2018 Conference with a specific ‘agenda’ of its own — to bring about a People’s Vote — it has turned a blind eye to the non-university educated portion of young people in the UK today. These are individuals that have had little opportunity to endorse or reject FFS’s political goal. Even if you voted to Leave, FFS encourages you to see that choice as misguided and reversible.

‘Whether we voted Leave or Remain, this is not the future that young people want or expect for themselves. We [of FFS] have a responsibility to stand up and make our voices heard, for all our future’s sake’.

Those that did vote Leave, which was 29 per cent of under 25s, are dismissed and patronised:

‘This document shows categorically what we have always known — that Brexit is led by the right, of the right and for the right’.

Pushing aside Brexit voters as right-wing political cannon fodder, rather than acknowledging their feelings and views, is irresponsible and elitist — no less so than the ERG’s desperation for no-deal. However abhorrent that cadre of Conservative politician is, the statements recorded in this document do not in themselves invalidate the Brexit result, upon which the revocation of freedom of movement was the predominant concern held by people of all ages — including young people.

Ultimately, rather than helping ossify unilateral conviction among opposition MPs that Brexit must be abandoned and shelved; the ‘Real Agenda of the Brexiteers’ report has done little other than prove that hard-left Remainers are as obstinate as those they so vehemently criticise. Their political ambitions, much like those of the Brexiteers, are part of an effort to prevent national unity and consensus under a narrow and singular aim. Their desire to overturn Brexit — often against their constituencies’ wishes and the public tide of opinion — is as damaging as the Brexiteers’ ambitions to push through Brexit by whatever means necessary. I’m not sure which is worse.

Young people want a ‘new kind of politics’ in post-Brexit Britain but the negotiations are out of their hands

Originally published in Shout Out UK.

The much-anticipated LSE report commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Brexit group has arrived, chaired by Labour MP for Aberavon, Steve Kinnock. Famously a Remainer with a passion for democratic youth engagement, the report is decked-out with recommendations that will ensure a ‘youth-led’ Brexit — or, at least a Brexit where young people are consulted and not patronised.

Titled ‘Building Bridges: A Youth Vision for a Common Future after Brexit’, the London School of Economics report has arrived amid a hectic few weeks of Brexit developments. Commissioned by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Better Brexit for Young People, this latest instalment in the Brexit saga explores youth perceptions of the EU withdrawal process amongst both EU and UK nationals. Its conclusions are unequivocal, although hardly revelatory: young people across Britain and the EU ‘urgently desire a new kind of politics’ — one that ‘can build bridges over the many divides’ that Brexit has wrought across the country.

Current chair of the APPG is Labour MP, and outspoken Remainer, Stephen Kinnock. Speaking ahead of the report’s launch at the Common Futures Forum on November 20th, Mr Kinnock lamented Brexit negotiations that ‘have failed to take account of the views of young people both in Britain and Europe’. ‘Young people’, he argues, ‘are tired of the acrimonious political debates that have dominated over the past two years and desire a future that is built on cooperation and consensus’.

Looking solely at the report’s findings, Mr Kinnock has a point. The proportion of young people that felt their generation’s views over Brexit had been taken into account is worryingly low — a meagre 36 per cent — while testimonies from focus group participants explicitly label Westminster politicians and EU leaders as out-of-touch ‘elites’ that disregard youth welfare. It is a vision of the youth disillusioned with the ruling parties’ undying preoccupation with aggressive political debate, inflammatory rhetorical exchanges, and the exclusive concerns of an older generation of voters. This popular sentiment, as Kinnock argues, comes on the back of Conservative policy developments that attack young people specifically: the tripling of university tuition fees, cuts to the state education sector, the capping of child benefits. Not to mention the impenetrable housing market and Brexit-related job insecurity.

Yet, the closer you look, the less the report lives up to its billing as a ‘kick-start’ to building a better Britain. Mr Kinnock’s call for ‘a European Economic Area-based Brexit’ smacks of Remain — and Labour — inclinations and desires. The report’s conclusions are bleak, but familiar — and in many ways risk exacerbating Britain’s divides, rather than helping close them up. Its touting of a Brexit ‘Generation Gap’ risks quantifying generational resentment already prevalent in politics, and vilifies an older generation apparently besotted with EU immigration, Brussels bureaucracy and loss of British ‘national sovereignty’.

The caricature of the older voter is genuine to some extent, and the report specifies that young people are worried that this image of Britain — a regressive, bitter nation ready to denigrate the EU institution at ease — will be the one that is remembered on the continent for years to come. This could potentially imbue all future EU-UK relations with animosity and suspicion, which is not something that British or European youths will be thankful for. Perhaps the report’s most radical suggestion of all — a renewed call for freedom of movement — raises concerns about whether, in the turmoil of the last two years, the APPG has forgotten the origins of Brexit altogether. They are offering the ‘young people’ a set of suggestions based on impracticality and quite frankly, infeasibility.

Further questions about the report’s methodology will ensure that few heads in Cabinet take its findings seriously. The report admits that in its search for respondents, its staff ‘specifically sought out young people who are likely to be most immediately affected by the new relationship’ — a sincere effort at objectivity that is outstandingly blind to its categorical one-sidedness. Likewise, surveying a mere 1000 people (double the number of its focus group), the report’s sweeping generalisations lack legitimacy. Throw in its penchant for metropolitan opinion, alongside a swollen interest in Scotland, Ireland and Wales (all were pro-EU), and you begin to wonder whether these findings are quite as democratised as Mr Kinnock would have us believe.

A notable positive is that the report’s long-term recommendations are more fruitful, offering a radically re-conceived vision of a future Britain. They target early years interventionism, providing political literacy and civic education, and envisage methods for reconnecting urban and rural communities. However, these ideals of tomorrow do little to allay the immediate concerns of today. The report makes no attempt to discern the nuance in British ‘youth’, failing to address how issues such as state benefits and university attendance might influence one’s political outlook. Consequently, far from giving Britain’s youth a voice, its conclusions fall foul of homogenising their views.

Mr Kinnock is insistent that the report represents ‘a more productive commitment to listen, understand, engage, and find the common ground’. That may yet prove the case, though he will have to be more thoughtful about whom he is listening to, and — hard thought it may be — less impulsive in his politics. Only then might we begin to forge a common future after Brexit.