Report of HMF public meeting ‘Real Levelling Up’

The video recording of this event is at the foot of the report posted below.

Four of the North’s leading political thinkers and doers joined the Hannah Mitchell Foundation on Saturday 4 December, for our public meeting ‘Real Levelling Up: getting a more democratic, flourishing future for the North of England’:

  • Thelma Walker, Labour MP for Colne Valley 2017-2019, member of the Northern Independence Party, Chair of the Progressive Alliance of the Left;
  • Natalie Bennett, Green Party peer in the House of Lords, member of Sheffield Green Party, leader of the Green Party of England & Wales, 2012-2016;
  • Alex Sobel MP, Labour MP for Leeds North West since 2017; and
  • Neil McInroy, Senior Global Adviser and Community Wealth Building Fellow of The Democracy Collaborative.

The meeting followed the Peoples Powerhouse convention ‘This is the North’, held on 24-25 November, which featured dozens of speakers and hundreds of attendees addressing many aspects of the question of how to create a social movement for economic change, social empowerment and environmental sustainability in the North. 

The purpose of this meeting was to focus in on the specific issue of the political/constitutional change needed to allow the North to flourish.  

A full report of all the speakers’ remarks and the Q&A session is provided below, but in summary, amongst the speakers’ diverse views, two areas of consensus were found:

  1. The ‘devolution deals’ represented by the ‘metro mayors’ do not return enough power from Westminster and Whitehall to the North.
  2. There needs to be a wider public engagement and debate on what more the North as a region needs.  One means of ‘breaking the logjam’ on doing that would be to convene a citizens’ assembly or series of citizens’ assemblies in 2022 to deliberate on the options and make recommendations.    

Later, at the HMF Annual General Meeting, these conclusions were incorporated into the resolution passed – see the text of the resolution here

Full report of the meeting

Paul Salveson welcomed everyone to the meeting and gave some background to the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, and then introduced the guest speakers.

Thelma Walker

Thelma Walker said she was delighted to speaking to the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, whose work she knew.  She was speaking today in her capacity as a member of the Northern Independence Party and also as Chair of the newly-formed Progressive Alliance of the Left, which brings together the Breakthrough Party (based in Manchester), Left Unity and the Northern Independence Party, plus other interested parties and campaign groups, which is currently being formalised – a really exciting step forward.

Thelma opened by saying she needed to be honest: she absolutely hates the term ‘levelling up’, which is just another Tory soundbite, a patronising term that Labour should never have adopted too.  What she would be talking about is social, economic and climate justice – and class struggle.  Some would say that this government is waging a class war on the most deprived in our communities.  And the problem is not just about economic and social inequality, it’s also about a broken political system.  How do we get rid of this over-centralised government and control from Westminster – the most centralised government in the developed world? How do we get the electoral and constitutional reform we so need? 

Thelma referred to her essay ‘England after the break-up of Britain’ published in Red Pepper magazine in October 2021.  She was greatly influenced by reading the work of Tom Nairn and his prediction that the break-up of the United Kingdom was inevitable.  We now have the possibility of a united Ireland.  In Scotland, the SNP is in government with the Greens; in Wales Welsh Labour has a pact with Plaid Cymru. 

Thelma asked: if you believe that the break-up of Britain is coming, and if you believe in self-determination, then why not take the Northern Independence Party’s proposal for independence seriously?  Not just devolution, but independence: Northerners have the right to have a choice and a voice.  Devolution as seen in the Mayoral system is not enough.  Although there are some good people in those roles at the moment, ultimately central government still controls the purse strings.   

Thelma asked: what can socialists and the radical left do to collaborate and work together to bring about transformative change?  She had been fortunate to be in Brussels in November for the European Left Forum.  Natalie Bennett was there and spoke really, really passionately: Thelma  enjoyed the speech and agreed with much of what she said.  At this time of economic, environmental and health crises cooperation and collaboration between Greens and the Left is more urgent than ever.  Thelma recommended everybody to take a look at the Forum’s final declaration and agreed seven-point action plan

In the North, the Northern Independence Party, the Breakthrough Party, Left Unity and other progressives are sharing a policy platform and a shared vision to deliver a socialist government, and to deliver policies which will improve every person’s life – policies such as universal basic income. This alliance of new parties and campaign groups share the desire to break from Westminster control and move for electoral and constitutional reform, and these demands have to begin with grassroots movements.  Common struggles starting from the grass roots have been successful – look at what’s happened just recently with the Indian farmers, their protests, their struggle, and their successful outcome.  Look at what the suffragettes achieved.  It can happen: people can bring about change, and together we can transform our society.

Thelma finished with a rousing peroration: our alliance is internationalist and we stand for peace, inclusion and equality between peoples. We oppose exploitation of other countries for economic gain.  The Northern independence movement can work for an independent North, and Northerners can be proud of their identity but still show solidarity with other regions and countries. The younger generation don’t want to cling to the Empire, the future they are facing is climate change, insecure work, and housing, and the destruction of the welfare state.  Socialism is the answer.  Not spin and sound bites. Let’s not mourn, let’s organize.

Natalie Bennett

Natalie Bennett spoke live from the café at Waterstones bookshop in Manchester.  After having agreed to speak at the meeting when it was planned to be held live at the Friends Meeting House Manchester she had accepted an invitation to speak to the sixth formers at Ampleforth College the previous evening and had stayed over in the city. 

Natalie said it was lovely to follow Thelma, essentially agree with everything she had said, and to have been with her the previous weekend at the European Left Forum.  She also agreed that levelling up was inappropriate terminology and referred everyone to an opinion piece she had written for the Yorkshire Post in 2020: Why replicating life in London is not a wise approach to levelling up the North.

Natalie said London has high levels of mental health problems and housing is incredibly expensive: life is really difficult for many people and that’s not what we’re aiming for.  What she prefers to talk about instead is ensuring there are strong local economies all across the North and all around the country: strong local economies built around small independent businesses and cooperatives, not the dominance of giant chains and multinationals extracting money to tax havens.  What we’ve got to do is talk about a different kind of economic system, one that meets people’s needs, that keeps money circulating locally.

She noted: there’s nothing inevitable about the system we have: it’s a result of policy decisions made over decades: 40 years of neoliberalism, call it what you like.  

Natalie argued that the current mayoral devolution is not the way to go: the idea of one single strong leader is in all kinds of ways a deeply dangerous and ineffective model.  She has been a long-time proponent of a Yorkshire parliament. 

To the question of whether we should want independence for the North, or greater autonomy for each area, Natalie said: “let’s have a debate, and let’s let the people decide”.  

“Let’s look at people’s constitutional conventions and deliberative democracy.  We’re seeing more and more of these happening around the world.  For example in the Republic of Ireland, they managed to solve two large and pressing issues: abortion and equal marriage.  People led the way, and were far braver and far stronger than the politicians, showing the way to something different.”

Natalie argued that the same applies to citizens’ assemblies tackling the climate emergency.  There’s a great case study from France where the citizens assembly on climate said that the French government should ban all internal flights where there was an alternative train option of less than four and a half hours. 

She said: “All around the world lots of exciting democratic experiments are happening.  But here our current government is doing the opposite. 

“They want to give the Prime Minister the right to dissolve parliament whenever he or she likes.  The government is only forced to put in a fixed term between the dissolution of parliament and a general election by convention, not by law.  But it’s not very hard to imagine an example of a prime minister saying, we have a terrible emergency, a pandemic for example, so we are dissolving parliament but we can’t hold an election for now.  The very explicit provisions of the Bill are that any decision to dissolve parliament is non-judiciable: it can’t be taken to the courts, so there is simply no way to stop it.

“The Policing Bill is both explicitly attacking Roma Gypsy and traveller people, and is also banning the right to protest.  The Elections Bill is going to give the government control of the Electoral Commission.  If that was happening in a country in the global south, people would be saying that’s terrible: that’s not democracy.  The Elections Bill’s voter suppression tactics are directly copied from the American right.  People are already not turning out to vote; demanding photo ID, which about 10% of people don’t have, will mean discouraging even people from voting.

“I always believe in focusing on positive things and possibilities. And I think we are now at a point where it’s very clear that the future doesn’t look like the past.  As a thought experiment, imagine if we actually had an amazingly good functional society, a society where everyone had money to put food on the table and keep a roof over their head.  Imagine if every house was insulated and had the right sort of equipment to provide comfortable, affordable heat.  Imagine if we had free education, universities, and very low levels of mental illness, and then we suddenly discovered there was a climate emergency, and we had to say all we’ve got to change everything.  Well, that would be enormously difficult.

“But right where we are now, these are the measures that we have to take for the climate emergency.  We need a Green New Deal.  Supporting walking, cycling and public transport, particularly in so many communities where bus services are being decimated and are ludicrously expensive.  Restoring public transport, making sure the trains are affordable and reliable, ensuring that it works for people.  Streets and stronger communities, where people get to know their neighbours.  A different kind of model of community.

“That’s what I think we can all get together and fight for, not just involving political parties, not just involving activists, but really reaching out into communities, going out to where people are and talking to them about what they want, about the future, what the future looks like for them, how society can meet their needs.  I’d like to put forward ideas like a universal basic income – a different kind of society that really invests in care.  People talk about the Green New Deal and they very often tend to be thinking about people in hardhats installing solar panels. Well, for me, a Green New Deal job is a well-paid, stable, respected care job helping people to stay in their homes and giving time to carers to have a cup of tea and a chat, when they home visit to give essential care.  A Green New Deal is these kind of things – a different kind of society that works for people and planet.

“At the moment we have a Far Right government that is spreading fear and attacking refugees, saying it’s a dangerous, difficult world we’ve got to build walls to keep those others out, Priti Patel saying we’ve got to turn back the refugee boats in the Channel.  The Nationality and Borders Bill as the government currently plans it is absolutely horrendous and breaks international law. 

We must be saying, refugees welcome, many of them come from places where our foreign policies helped to create the situation that they’re in now. Not to mention of course we’re going to be seeing many climate refugees, as well.  We have to say we know there’s enough resources on this planet for everyone to have a decent life, if we just share them out fairly. And that’s why, green politics is invariably what people traditionally described as left, politics.  In Britain, collectively all of us – no matter how you live as an individual – use the resources of our share of three planets every year. We have to come back to one planet living, and that one planet living has to be everyone has to have enough.  

“We have to drastically reduce inequality in our society.  That means multinational companies and rich individuals have to pay their taxes. And then, what we will get is a better, more functional society for everybody.”

Natalie said she wanted to finish on a positive message, and this was: “starting with localism, starting with people making decisions for themselves in their own communities, we can and we must build something better. The future doesn’t look like the past, politically, economically, socially, environmentally, educationally.  And that’s really good news”.

Alex Sobel

Alex mentioned that before becoming an MP he was a Leeds councillor for six years and also ran the regional body Social Enterprise Yorkshire and Humber, so he had experience working at the regional level, trying to transform our economy.  But in his limited time to speak he would focus on the democratic deficit facing the North.   

The UK has real deficiency in governance on a whole range of levels.  Firstly, we don’t have a written constitution that codifies how the country works, we have a system that’s hundreds of years old and out of date.  We have an unelected head of state and an unelected upper chamber, and a lower chamber elected by the second or third least democratic form of election. So, we’re already starting on a back foot.   

Secondly, power in England is vested in Westminster and Whitehall.  We have a four nation country, and three of those nations to a greater or lesser extent, have devolved power, whilst one nation has very centralised power.  We’ve got a sort of federalism for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and then nothing at all in England.

Tracy Brabin, the devolved mayor of West Yorkshire has very little power, compared to people who are state governors in the US or state premiers in Australia, or regional presidents in other countries of Europe.   England has got this huge deficiency.  We also have a system that looks like Swiss cheese: in West Yorkshire you’ve got a Mayor, in South Yorkshire you’ve got Mayor with different powers, whereas in North Yorkshire and in Humber you’ve got nothing.  How can a country have completely different forms of governance on a completely arbitrary basis, different places with different devolutions deals?  Who can understand the system?  The mayors barely can, never mind ordinary people – they don’t know what their mayor does, or what powers they have. 

Alex set out his view that we should have a federal Britain – a federal country with its components established at the same time, with the same powers, and the same voting system.  He argued that there can be a debate about whether they are based on the old RDA regions or isn’t, or whether they have the name of assemblies or parliaments.  Semantics and even geography is not the be all and end all.   

What matters is a settlement that will take powers from Whitehall, and give them to assemblies that are elected by PR, and have tax raising powers.  So how do we get from here to there? 

Alex argued that we need to take on some of the other deficits in our democracy, including the way that we vote for Westminster and the fact we have an unelected second chamber.  

We need to change the voting system.  If we move from first past the post to PR for Westminster, it will change people’s behaviour and their interaction with the system.  At the moment we have a system with about 400 safe seats and 250 marginal seats.  Some of the safe seats haven’t changed hands in the last 60 years.  MPs with very safe seats know they won’t be got rid of.  Geoffrey Cox’s second job is being an MP; his first job is working for various offshore tax havens by being their barrister. 

We should also ceased to have the House of Lords and instead have an upper chamber in an elected system.  That will also take power away from London, because the current system has a disproportionate number of peers from London.  There could be a debate about whether to have one chamber in London and the other one somewhere else.  

We also need to ensure that we have a codified constitution so everyone knows where they stand.  Countries which have codified constitutions, which are taught in schools, have societies with a better level of democratic engagement.  Schools in England don’t really give you a sense of how the country is governed.

When we saw the breaking of all the norms during Brexit, something new every day and the system taken to its limits, we shouldn’t have to go to the library and look things up, or find constitutional lawyers interpret it for you.  That is not how our system should work, but unfortunately that is how it does.

Alex closed by saying that he had to say a word about the climate and ecological emergency.  There is a misunderstanding both in the political class and in public opinion of the urgency of the unfolding crisis.  We are already in the crisis: the crisis in the future is now.  There isn’t a sense of urgency, and there is a lack of action. 

The system moves very slowly and obviously we have a conservative government, the party of vested interests in the status quo.  They think we need to change things a little bit to address climate change when what we need is a radical paradigm shift.  

For some people it’s difficult to see what governance, democracy and the voting system, and what regionalism has got to do with the climate and ecological changes we need to be making.  To make the paradigm shift, we need a governance system to underpin it.  So all of these things fit.  

Neil McInroy

Neil was asked to make some observations on what he had heard so far, as well as add his own thoughts.

Neil’s first observation was that the thing that has not been said so far that this debate is very, very old – centuries old, decades old.  People come up with all the policy ideas, but the issue is the means to get to that policy.  Neil said that to be honest, he was tired of the debate because we’re not moving anywhere.

We need to confront this.  The first problem is power. Not enough regional power. With all due respect, we have to stop relying on parliamentarians.  We have our own agency and should make a statement: we need to disrupt the system of power.

The second problem is the economic model.  The London-South East’s economic model is financialisation.  The third problem is redistribution. We need proper redistributive policies. 

The other thing the previous speakers had not touched upon is how complicit we have been in recent history. Many in the North were complicit with George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, yet it was a business lobby organisation Northern Powerhouse Partnership.  Levelling Up is just a new label for Northern Powerhouse, it will be a failure, it doesn’t actually deal with the fundamentals.

The devolution deals have got people standing to be mayors, but the government holds all the cards.  It’s Dickensian – it’s please sir, can I have some more?  We’re all complicit, and have been for decades of playing around with this agenda.

So we need to change the conversation.  We need to stop being complicit in the inadequacies that have been around for decades.  Let’s reset it.  We need – now – a citizens’ assembly or a constitutional convention that opens up a people’s conversation about this issue, and moves the debate forward.  

Questions to the speakers

Natalie and Thelma were asked to respond to Neil’s challenge to get a Northern citizens’ assembly off the ground in 2022.   

Thelma agreed that the more engagement and more listening to a broad range of groups was important, hearing the people’s voice.  Her concern would be over who organised it and who chose the participants, etc.  Those things would require a lot of preparation and thought, but if the right processes were in place, the Progressive Alliance of the Left could want to be part of it.

Natalie pointed out the methodology for citizens’ assemblies is well understood. The problem is to do it well does take a significant amount of funding, there’s really no way around that.

In 2015 the Electoral Reform Society did an exercise in deliberative democracy looking at regional devolution, involving two citizen groups, one in Sheffield, one in Southampton (the Democracy Matters Citizens’ Assembly project).  The UK Climate Assembly was properly funded and done really well.   

It would be great if we could find a donor who would fund an exercise.  But even if not we could still develop the model and get the ideas out there.  You could do some really good work to get a range of people together from say an estate what should we do about this estate, how can we improve life here.  The idea of participatory democracy is really important, but also you can look at all those previous studies, you don’t have to start from scratch.

Neil suggested putting an open letter to all the mayors and local leaders across the north, and saying please can you put in £5,000 each and find out where people stand on these sorts of issues.  There’s a set process to follow and for say £100k we can break the log jam on this issue.  Otherwise we may be still talking about this in another few decades.

Alex was asked how we can get constitutional change from a parliament that won’t bring in PR, because we probably need in order to bring in real devolution. 

Alex agreed that the reality is that if you want PR, parliament is a blockage.  So we must unblock the blockage. Unless we have a revolution, we are going to need it to be passed by both houses of parliament as they currently exist.  That means you need a government with a majority from parties that had promised it in their manifesto.  

At the Labour conference, Alex was part of a broad coalition from the left to the right of the party pulled together by Laura Parker from Labour for a New Democracy.  80% of party members voted for a change to the system.  The problem was that 99% of the trade union delegates voted against it, and the motion failed.  (The vote happened before Unite union change its policy to drop first past the post and support change to the voting system.)  So we’re going to have another go next year. And if Unite and other unions vote with us, with the members, then it will become party policy.

You can’t fully trust how it’s all going to pan out – electoral reform was in Labour’s manifesto in 1997 and Tony Blair never did it.  But, we’re a lot nearer than we have been, and I’m hopeful.


Paul Salveson wrapped up by thanking all the speakers for an excellent and challenging set of contributions, and especially Natalie Bennett for working wonders to appear from Waterstones’ café. 

Paul was particularly struck by an idea implicit in what all the speakers were saying, that actually it’s not just about having one single big regional or national convention where you may just attract the usual suspects, but really about going right down to the community level.  It was interesting during the Scottish independence referendum the number of really well attended debates, right down at the very local community level, involving young teenagers of 14, 15, 16 years old all engaged and expressing highly intelligent views. 

Paul closed by encouraging anyone attending to stay online for the Hannah Mitchell Foundation AGM, to get a feel for what HMF gets up to, and to join HMF if they wanted – it’s free.

Video recording of the event

Timings. 0:00 – 3:39: Introduction to the HMF – Paul Salveson; 3:40 – 16:10: Thelma Walker; 16:10 – 29:55: Natalie Bennett; 29:55 – 43:00: Alex Sobel; 43:00 – 48:20: Neil McInroy; 48:20 – 1:08:37: Q&A session.

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