Welsh Lessons for Northern Labour

by Paul Salveson

I’m writing this from the perspective of the North of England, and my particular place in it – Bolton. The results within the region, but also in other parts of the UK, have some important messages for progressive politics in the North. As the election results come in, a number of things are clear:

  • Labour in Wales has done remarkably well.
  • The SNP has consolidated its position and Labour in Scotland has not made its hoped-for breakthrough under its new leader.
  • Labour in many English towns and cities has done badly, contradicted to a degree by its performance in some cities – for example London, Manchester, Liverpool.
  • Small, in some cases ‘hyper-local’ parties have done very well in certain areas where the incumbent party (usually Labour) is seen as ineffective.
  • Small English regional parties have failed to make a breakthrough, with poor results in Hartlepool.
  • The Green Party is making modest progress in places where it has put in consistent local campaigning (but by no means everywhere).

The main focus of this short paper is why Labour did so well in Wales and why it has struggled in the North of England – with some lessons. In some ways, the two places are very different: Wales is a nation with its own history and culture, including language. The North of England is (at least) three regions, with identities revolving round locality and historic counties, such as Yorkshire and Lancashire.

However, there are similarities between Wales and the North of England, particularly in the traditionally working class former industrial areas of Wales: the Valleys in particular, but also the former mining and steel-making areas around Wrexham and North Wales. Whilst these areas voted strongly for ‘Brexit’ it has not stopped them, by and large, for remaining with Labour in the Assembly elections. The pattern in similar ‘left-behind’ areas in the North of England has been very different, with swings to either the Tories or ‘hyper-local’ parties in towns such as Bolton, Oldham and Bury.

The political pundits have put forward a number of suggestions for why Welsh Labour has done so well. These include the ‘incumbency’ factor and the competent way in which the Labour-run Welsh Government has handled Covid. There is also the historic hatred of the Conservatives in many parts of Wales.

But maybe there is something else – that Labour in Wales did not present itself as a sort of local version of Starmer’s Labour, but something distinctly ‘Welsh’. Proud of the nation and its heritage, but not aggressively ‘nationalistic’ in a way that might have scared some people – including the large number of English ex-pats in many parts of the country. ‘Welsh Labour’ was clearly seen as something very distinctive, still marking out that ‘clear red water’ between Wales and England which former leader Rhodri Morgan first coined as a metaphor for relations with what was then a Blair-led Labour Party.

Welsh Labour, under the unassuming leadership of Mark Drakeford, comes over as responsible, progressive, in tune and helping shape a ‘green’ agenda and committed to further devolution within a reformed UK. And I’m not entirely sold on the ‘incumbency’ argument – up to a point maybe, but lots of ‘incumbent’ Labour councils in the North of England have taken a hammering. The fact is, a Welsh Labour Government has been seen to be doing a good job.

And up here in the North of England, the politics are very different. Traditional Labour-held councils which once included Bolton have seen further shifts to the Tories or to ‘hyper-local parties’, which should not be written off by Labour as ‘right-wing’ fall-outs from the Brexit party and UKIP.

Yet there’s a counter-movement. Writing before the mayoral elections come in, it is a reasonable assumption that Andy Burnham will do well in Greater Manchester. He was able to capitalise on anti-Tory instincts during the Covid situation and earn the title of ‘King of the North’ (not, note, ‘Greater Manchester’ which is a made-up entity with little legitimacy amongst many of its residents).

However, that very embryonic ‘Northern’ identity politics didn’t make any headway in Hartlepool with the Northern Independence Party and its rival North-east Party, both getting poor results. Yes, the voting system is against them but even so it’s interesting that in the face of disillusionment with a Labour Party seen as ‘not for us’, people opted for the Tories in Hartlepool and many local councils.

So let’s unpick the idea that Labour ‘isn’t for us’ up North a bit more. We are talking about those parts of the North which historically have strongly supported Labour – the Boltons, Oldhams, Blackburns over on this side and the likes of Huddersfield, Bradford, Halifax, Rotherham over on t’other. Not Manchester nor Leeds where Labour wins support from the middle-class professionals; and results in Sheffield point to a very different political tradition emerging with the Greens doing very well.

So, going back to the lessons from Wales.

Labour could rebuild in the North if it was able to build an identity around class, community and region. Class in the sense that it has to show it is representative of the communities it is part of and speaks their language and understands the issues – including the paramount issue of jobs. Community in that it brings people together and champions local issues and concerns – whether it’s local bus services, developing ‘green spaces’, supporting local culture and heritage or fighting inappropriate development. Region in that it is part of the North, in the way that Labour in Wales has promoted itself as being Welsh but a very inclusive Welshness.  Labour in the North of England needs to rebuild its trust with the traditional ‘white’ working class but not ignore its new areas of support amongst BAME communities and amongst middle-class professionals. A shared, inclusive, Northern identity can help do that. Not in any ‘anti-South’ sense but through pride in our heritage and our present-day identity.

This is about more than a bit of clever marketing. Just as Labour in Wales and Scotland have become effectively their own distinct political parties within an overarching UK Labour, we should have our own devolved ‘Northern Labour’ with its own domestic regional policies which include democratic devolution (based on an extension of the Greater Manchester and Merseyside mayoral system with an elected membership and covering a broader geographical area to create ‘Greater Lancastria’).

If we continue having to take orders from the London-based Labour HQ, including having candidates as well as policies foisted on us, people will continue to reject us. There have been suggestions that Starmer might move Labour Party HQ out of London, which wouldn’t be a bad thing (rents are very cheap in Farnworth if Keir wants to have a look at the grand – and largely empty – former town hall) but it doesn’t really address the issue.

Does this mean all parts of England should have their own ‘regionalised’ Labour parties? If that’s what the party membership wants, why not? London Labour makes obvious sense and something like it already exists organisationally (www.londonlabour.org.uk), but the same could work for the Midlands, South-west and eastern England.

If Starmer and the Labour leadership really want to look at radical solutions, they need to do that most difficult thing for politicians to do – surrender power. A ‘Northern Labour’ wouldn’t be deciding foreign policy, whether to invade France or have its own air force. But there are lots of domestic policies that a ‘Northern Region’ within the UK could have responsibility for, and we need look no further than Wales to see how that could work (and Scotland too, of course).

A Northern railway, accountable to a Northern government? Yes please!

The political expression of Northern devolution must be a devolved political party. It can’t be done by policy wonks in London.

Would ‘Northern Labour’ stem the decline of Labour in the so-called ‘red wall’ seats? Yes, I’m sure it would.

Paul Salveson’s book REGION: CLASS: COMMUNITY: Socialism with a Northern Accent will be out in July, published by Lancashire Loominary http://www.lancashireloominary.co.uk

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