Andrew's Column: The North! Where's That?
A sharp increase in COVID infection rates in Britain has re-opened old tensions between London and the north of England
England's 'red wall' isn't like India's 'red corridor'. It doesn't pose an armed threat to the state; it doesn't harbour dated ideas of popular insurrection; and it only started being talked about when the wall was crumbling.
Boris Johnson's Conservatives only did so well in last December's general election because they breached what voting experts termed the 'red wall' and won seats in what had been the Labour Party's heartlands in the (once) industrial north and midlands of England. These weren't by and large in the North's big cities - Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle - but in near-by towns which had been hollowed out by long years of deindustrialisation and austerity.
It's not so much that northerners had suddenly swung to the right - more that Johnson's slogan of 'Get Brexit Done' attracted support. Many northern towns - though not so much the cities - were bastions of Brexit sentiment. When pro-Europe campaigners warned that withdrawal from the European Union would imperil the country's prosperity, people in these towns would look around and mutter: what prosperity - there's none round here!
Many northern voters were also suspicious of the perceived extremism of the then Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It's much repeated, and partly true, that British socialism owes more to Methodism than to Marx - it's pragmatic more than ideological. Northerners were also wary that Corbyn and his top team were Londoners and not instinctively in tune with the acute social problems in what some patronisingly describe as 'the provinces'.
Approaching half of Labour Members of Parliament represent constituencies in the north of England - but it's 44 years since the last northerner served as leader of the Labour Party. That's the sort of thing that prompts deep resentment in northern towns and cities. As a northerner (I was brought up in Leeds) living in London, I have been astonished and angered by how little the London-based elite understands, knows or cares about the North. It's out of sight and out of mind - and if wasn't for football, where northern teams still dominate, few southerners would give a second thought to the place.
The directly elected mayors and top council leaders across the North remain overwhelmingly Labour. They don't have all that much power but they do have a voice. And they have been using it, loudly, over the last week or two. Their region is being hit the hardest by the galloping second wave of the Coronavirus pandemic. They are demanding that London work with local government in the North, rather than simply issue orders, in tackling the resurgence of COVID. And they want more public money, much more, to protect northern business and jobs as another Lockdown of sorts looms.
There is of course party politics at play, and some northern leaders are keen to blame London for necessary but unpopular restrictions - Liverpool's pubs, for instance, have been ordered to close again - brought in to bring down infection rates. But there's also fury that some councils have only had a few hours notice of new restrictions specific to their areas introduced by London.
Several Labour MPs say they have been excluded from region-focussed briefings by the health minister - or in one case, only invited once the briefing was already underway - because officials in London were so ignorant about the North, they didn't know what constituencies fell in which area. You can't imagine a top Indian bureaucrat saying "Coimbatore - now which state is that in?", but alas you can believe that a British civil servant might ask: "Wigan, where's that?".
Remarkably, Boris Johnson and his government seem to have been listening and learning. They have reached out to northern mayors and council leaders - and even encouraged local authorities to take the lead in deciding what new restrictions might work in combating COVID. It could be a sign of the future. While some power has been devolved to Scotland and Wales, England itself remains highly centralised - power, money and influence all reside disproportionately in and around London.
That needs to change. And perhaps one lasting - and positive - consequence of this pandemic will be an empowering of the land that Westminster tends to overlook: the North.