The Institute for Public Policy Research’s northern branch put out a press release on Monday, trailing research to be published in an upcoming report (The Northern Economic Agenda by Howard Reed, Olga Mrinska and Michael Johnson), and berating the government for being in denial about the North-South divide:
[S]ince 1997, the North East, the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside and the Midlands have all moved further away from the national average, on the Government’s favoured measure of output per head (known to economists as ‘Gross Value Added’). Over the same period, London has out paced the rest of Britain.
[T]he Government’s target (which was set by Gordon Brown in 2002) has only been to reduce the average rate of growth between two groups of regions:
• on the one hand, the North East, the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside the East and West Midlands and the South West, and;
• on the other hand, London, the South East and the East of England.
At first I thought it odd that a think tank aligned to New Labour would be so critical. But it appears that this is cheerleading in disguise.
The IPPR North’s director, Sue Stirling says:
“The Government needs to get real on the north-south divide. At the moment, it is in denial. The Government has not explicitly targeted the gap between rich and poor, nor the gap between north and south. As a result, the work of Labour’s Regional Development Agencies has only succeeded in reducing the north’s relative decline.
“The standard Government line on the north-south divide is that inequalities within regions are as dramatic as those between regions. This is true but just because you deal with inequalities within regions it does not mean you should ignore inequalities between regions.
“This October’s Comprehensive Spending Review will almost certainly scrap the Government’s current target, and not before time. But we need a proper target to replace it that explicitly focuses on the gap between north and south.”
Don’t answer the question!
The electoral importance of the south east of England for governing UK does not explain Labour’s failure to tackle the North-South divide. Rather, the changes in British capitalism necessitated the continuation of the managed decline of manufacturing: the financialisation of the UK economy has continued in the last decade, moving north and south further along the road of uneven development.
Regionalisation was a way for Labour to sidestep the English question, which is a necessity for both the party and the capitalist class. The argument that a North East Assembly would help develop the region’s economy was rejected by the voters, and the plan for elected regional assemblies was halted, though the assemblies themselves did not cease to function as unelected bodies.
Brown has signalled that there is to be a revival of the elected regional assembly plan, the existing assemblies are to be disbanded, and the Tories might counter regionalisation with support for an English Parliament, if they can get over the Union. In the past, Tory talk of an English Parliament resulted in the solution currently proffered by Dangerous Dave: English votes on English matters. Will there be a change?
Tories and signatories
Tory MP Mark Field has come out in favour of an English Parliament:
I must confess I am wary of the Party adopting an ‘English votes for English Bills’ policy and playing to English nationalism. There is obvious inequity in our current constitutional arrangements as a result of devolution, and there is increasing disquiet from many in England who are concerned about the imbalances left by Labour’s political settlement. But attacking Scottish MPs comes across as partisan and negative. Our mission should be to maintain and strengthen the Union and avoid promoting a solution that could be portrayed by our opponents as putting that Union at risk. This would play badly not only in Scotland (which many Conservatives too easily regard as a lost cause) but also amongst middle class, Middle England voters who continue to value the Union and all it has meant for us. It also runs directly counter to the positive, optimistic messages that the Party is trying to cultivate elsewhere.
Since the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers, I have, in principle, favoured the option of a fully or largely-elected House of Lords. However, I recognise that such an outcome is unlikely to be within the realms of practical politics, not least as the House of Lords as currently constituted is likely to be hostile and there would be little agreement as to the timing or form of elections. I would prefer to see the creation of a completely new federal parliament. Four, full, national parliaments in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with most of the existing powers of the House of Commons and over them a federal United Kingdom parliament, which would debate defence and foreign affairs, make treaties and administer a cohesion fund for the poorer parts of the UK. It would be funded by a per GDP levy on the national parliaments. There would be no need for extra politicians, as the national parliaments would send representatives to the UK parliament and meet together for its debates, which could be held in the old House of Lords chamber. [Emphasis added.]
Labour MP Frank Field initiated an Early Day Motion on the English question in January, which has so far been signed by only nineteen parliamentarians:
this House notes that those polls that have questioned the English report a clear majority in favour of an English parliament; and further notes that it is this issue, and not Scottish independence or even House of Lords reform, that is the issue that voters now put at the top of their priorities for constitutional reform.
Gordon Brown obviously doesn’t care for Scottish independence and has opted for the House of Lords as his focus for constitutional reform. It is not just because it’s the only option left; there is some political expediency in reforming the Lords. The cash for honours scandal further eroded confidence in political representation, a loss of legitimacy that the political elite can ill afford.
The heredity of political preferences which benefited Labour no longer exists – the party is no longer viewed in class terms and this has resulted in millions of traditional Labour voters giving up on the ballot box. Voting for Labour is no longer something that is learned – as abstention rises, so Labour’s turnout declines.
From the perspective of the ruling class, this means that New Labour has helped kill off class politics, though the party is still seen in class terms – only this time it is representing the interests of the super rich.
This positive development for the British capitalist class is offset by the damage in legitimacy that comes with millions of people dropping out of political participation – be it as party members or as loyal voters.
An English parliament with a fair voting system and recallable MPs on the wages of the average worker, would accelerate the independence struggles in Wales and Scotland, advance self-government in Cornwall, and give positive nationhood to working class people in England. All of this would be a blow to British and US imperialism, the military conquest of the Middle East, the European Union, and the privatisation agenda.
The establishment of an English Parliament will be the last choice for the ruling class in answering the English question, for all of the positive points I listed. There is no reworking the Union, it died when Ireland left.
This is not to say that they won’t try. Yet again the corpse of the British Empire will be reheated.