Can radical regionalism save Labour?

Written By: Paul Salveson
Published: March 24, 2017 Last modified: March 27, 2017

Few people, inside or outside the Labour Party, would disagree that the party is facing some very serious problems, which extend well beyond whom should lead it. As someone who left during the Ed Miliband era, and stood in the 2015 election for a Yorkshire regionalist party, I remain slightly sceptical that the Labour Party can stop its support in the North of England haemorrhaging. But it could be done, if the party grasped a radical regionalist agenda.
Labour remains the biggest party on the centre-left in England and Wales, and has had a major boost in membership, giving some activists a sense of unreality. Despite the growth, it faces oblivion in Scotland and could go the same way in Wales. It is vulnerable in the North of England, though perhaps Stoke suggests the UKIP threat is overblown. Much has been made by the political commentariat about Labour’s traditional white working class being susceptible to the right-wing agenda of UKIP. I wonder how true that is. In Scotland, that same white working class seems quite happy in supporting a centre-left SNP. White working class voters supported Plaid Cymru, on a radical green and left agenda in places such as the Rhondda, while Irish nationalist “white working-class” voters supported Sinn Fein in the Stormont elections. Yes, these are “nationalist” votes and much of the English left doesn’t get “nationalism’, as demonstrated embarrassingly badly by Sadiq Khan on his recent visit to Scotland. The small nation civic nationalism of Scotland, Wales and Ireland is not the same as the odious big nation nationalism of Nigel Farage and UKIP, Marine Le Pen and the like. The point about some white working-class votes going to the right is that there isn’t anywhere else sufficiently attractive, in England at least, for it to go.

So, what would tempt me, a left-of-centre socialist com­mitted to co-operative values – the sort of person who should see Labour as their natural home – to rejoin? It’s about much more than a left versus right argument, or who leads. Instinct­ive­ly I like Jeremy Corbyn. I’ve always admired his commit­- ment to “unpopular” but important issues, including Ireland and Palestine. But that’s not the point. Labour needs to develop a radical new agenda based around some “big ideas” that aren’t a rehash of post-war statism or for that matter 1970s’ leftism. How can Labour re-ignite its appeal in England which doesn’t pander to English nationalism but can develop a “left-populist” narrative which has a strong emphasis on identity coupled with commitment to social justice and progressive values?

England is the problem. It is an old imperial power that has co-opted Ireland, Wales and Scotland over centuries past. Today, those ties have either broken or are breaking. We need to imagine a very different Britain – based on federalism –  or face its total break-up within 20 years, or possibly less. Any “federal” solution which has England as a single entity will fail, for all sorts of reasons. For one, its sheer size would mean Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would be tiny minorities, as they are now within the Westminster settlement. And “England” is far from being a united nation. There are growing cultural tensions between north and south which are fed by growing regional inequalities. The North isn’t a nation, but it does sometimes feel like a colonial outpost of a largely uncaring centre. There is not – yet – an “English” equivalent of the civic nationalism of SNP, Plaid, or Sinn Fein. English nationalism, of which UKIP is a clear example, will always tilt to the far right and be defined at least part by its hatred and prejudice towards the Welsh, Scots and Irish.

There can never be a “progressive” take on English nationalism. A Labour Party trying to “reclaim’ Englishness is doomed to disaster. It will never be right-wing enough to satisfy the UKIPpers and former BNP supporters, and will alienate the many genuine progressives in its ranks – including among the much-derided white working class.

The answer, surely, is for Labour to capture the vacant ground of progressive English regionalism, championing democratic devolution for the North, Midlands, South-West, East Anglia, London and the South, based on elected regional parliaments, under proportional representation. This would require a decentralising agenda within the party that matches a regionalist external policy. It would involve a major re-organisation of Labour into a fully federal party which would allow Scotland, Wales and the English regions to develop their own domestic policies within a  broad over-arching commitment to social justice, democracy and a common international policy.

Some leading Labour figures including John McDonnell and Ken Livingstone have said they support federalism, and have implied that should be based on the English regions, with Scotland and Wales. But it’s one thing to say it and quite another to start building a politics which fully embraces it. All we have at the moment is people like Andy Burnham (who, unlike McDonnell and Livingstone is based in the North) playing  with the idea of a “Northern Labour” already, but positioning it as a sort of “ee-by-gum UKIP”. That isn’t the road to go down and gives UKIP more credit than they deserve as a competitor for Northern support. The idea that elected mayors represent a major democratic leap forward for the English cities is a fallacy and based on wishful thinking. As a very minimum, an elected mayor should be accountable to a directly-elected assembly, Greater London-style. What people in Manchester and Liverpool will get is a powerful politician with limited accountability, other than through the leaders of the big metropolitan authorities. Whatever else it might be, it isn’t democracy.

There is an alternative based around a modernising democratic agenda which promotes directly-elected regional government with empowered local authorities and neighbourhood and workplace democracy. These “levels” could form the infrastructure to develop a radical programme which restores prosperity to decaying Northern towns and cities. Economic regeneration in former industrial areas doesn’t work without strong local and regional democracy, not dependent on the whims of a central elite.

At the same time, as Germany and many other federal states demonstrate, “the region” is a sensible tier of government to manage strategic transport, health, education, housing and other services. Federalism isn’t about total independence and part of its attraction is the ability for the federal state to provide re-balancing investment when necessary to enable less well-developed regions to come up to the “mean”, ensuring a balanced country rather than a highly unbalanced situation that we have now with an overheated capital and hundreds of economically struggling towns and cities in the regions. If you visit towns like Hartlepool, Rotherham, Ashton and smaller former mining and textile towns you can feel the poverty and marginalisation. No wonder people voted “leave” – it was a cry of despair, anger and frustration in many Northern communities, where Labour has been the “natural’ political power for decades. People feel abandoned, and they have every right to feel like that.

Labour could become the hegemonic political force in the North if it put forward progressive policies which respond to this feeling but also chime with a growing sense of Northern identity but don’t pander to bigotry and childish anti-southern prejudice. Some Tribune readers will hate me for saying it, but Northern Labour should become a bit more like the SNP and Plaid, with a politics based on strong regional (as opposed to national) identity, social justice, and good quality services – many of which could be delivered on a co-operative basis. The vision should be for a modern Federal Britain in which Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions work together as equals and friends, with the end of the centralist state – and the end of “British Labour” at least as we know it. It should be based on a fair voting system and encouragement to progressive parties to work together in what would essentially be a series of regional “progressive alliances”. And it should not be afraid of being internationalist and pro-Europe.

To a big extent, this decentralist approach goes against Labour’s grain. Much of its ideological baggage is instinctively centralist though it hasn’t always been so. The work of Michael Young in the 1940s and 1950s – particularly his pamphlet Small Man – Big World (1948) – began to chart out a different kind of socialism that was decentralist and neighbourhood-focused. There was a battle for the soul of the Labour Party and it was won by the centralisers and bureaucrats who saw “socialism’ as being about big state-owned corporations run by a bureaucratic elite. The alternative, of co-operative production and extending democracy within the British polity at regional and local level, and into the workplace, was gradually forgotten, though it had a modest revival in the 1970s and – let’s not forget recent history – by people like Jon Cruddas during the Ed Milband years. It’s interesting that Nye Bevan, often regarded as a centralist, favoured grassroots democracy, though he wasn’t entirely consistent.

While Young recognised the value of regionalism, many proponents of democratic devolution today don’t, opting for devolution down to the local government level. Yet a strong regional tier is vital for many services that are too strategic for local government but need taking away from central (in other words, London) control. It’s all about getting the right balance and there’s little doubt that the UK, notwithstanding devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, remains hopelessly centralised.

While the regionalist argument makes enormous sense on a practical, “technical” level (speaking as transport professional), there is much more to regionalism than ensuring better delivery of vital services and promoting more balanced economic development. A vibrant regionalism has the potential to act as a mobilising force to inspire people in the way that civic nationalism has ensured the SNP’s current hegemonic position in Scottish politics and society.

Developing a strong Northern identity, building on sentiments which are already there, stoked by a growing negative sense of neglect and even abandonment by central government, could be the key to developing a positive and progressive centre-left agenda in the North, and other English regions. It could pull people away from the blandishments of the Tories and UKIP and win support from people who are not traditional Labour supporters. It might just work – and I’m not sure what else would ensure the revival of progressive politics in the English regions outside that very different country called London.

Paul Salveson is author of Socialism with a Northern Accent, published by Lawrence and Wishart (2011) and other books on transport and social history

About Paul Salveson

Paul Salveson, MBE, FCILT, former BR freight guard and signalman, is Visiting Professor in Transport and Logistics at the University of Huddersfield.