James Melville explores how Boris Johnson can respond to a protest vote against the territorial injustice of austerity.
It is a phrase that has been repeated many times in large parts of northern England: “We are a Tory free zone”. That was until 12 December 2019, when the Tories dismantled the Labour red wall of the north and won a series of seats that have never previously elected a Conservative MP.
How did we get here?
It is clear that many of these communities bought into the Boris Johnson message of “get Brexit done” and that Jeremy Corbyn had failed to connect with them. But the problems go much deeper than that. It is a complexity that is rooted within 40 years of political and economic neglect.
Many of these communities have quite rightly felt that, for 40 years, their political leaders have ignored their real concerns. They don’t want to be brushed off with meaningless platitudes and inaction anymore. They understandably want change, even if it means voting for a paradoxical direction that is almost certainly against their best interests. Many voters within these areas are sick and tired of neglect and, instead, want to see the tap turned on in terms of economic and industrial transformation.
This is a region with a similar population to London – 16 million people. The potential to create a new northern industrial heartland is huge. By 2050, the Northern Independent Economic Review found that the north of England has the potential to add £97 billion and 850,000 more jobs to the UK, instance.
Targeted Investment Beyond the Cities
The north needs targeted investment in transport links to improve the woefully inadequate connections between its major cities and towns – in particular, the inadequate transport links between the north-east and north-west.
A new industrial strategy should also focus on developing new major industrial sites in the north across technology, advanced manufacturing, digital development, health innovation and energy. To encourage this growth, it needs the support of infrastructure investment in transport, education, logistics and financial and professional services.
Most of all, it needs more than just empty ‘Northern Powerhouse’ rhetoric from the Government and a joined-up and integrated industrial strategy that is actually put into place as a long-term delivery programme.
The case to invest in the north of England remains a compelling one – not just to unlock its potential, but also to heal the sense of hopelessness within these communities and also to steer them back towards a progressive political path.
It is also fundamental that any northern industrial strategy goes further than city-centric investment in Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle. It must embrace the old industrial towns of the north and lead them back to their former glory.
Since the northern deindustrialisation programme of the Thatcher era, towns such as Leigh, Stoke, Sunderland, Wakefield, Grimsby, Huddersfield, Wrexham, Bishop Auckland and Wigan have seen their old industries disappear and their communities have been left feeling disenfranchised and without hope. It is exactly these areas that have felt increasingly marginalised, in which many people ended up voting for Brexit and, incredibly, for the first time ever, for the Conservatives in the 2019 General Election.
A Protest against Austerity
Here lies the problem. The Tories may have received ‘loaned’ votes in the north to “get Brexit done”, but can we really believe that they will ‘get the north done’ in terms of a genuine economic and industrial rebooting? I doubt it.
The truth is that, over the past decade, the Conservative Government has made an art form of ensuring that austerity cuts were worse in the north and in Labour-voting towns and cities, than they did in their south-eastern heartlands. The south, particularly the economically prosperous home counties council areas around London, has seen relatively tiny cuts to spending and is far better equipped to raise local taxes. But in the north, more than 30 council areas in England have experienced cuts in spending of more than 30% between 2010 and 2018, with five northern councils – Salford, South Tyneside, Wigan, Oldham and Gateshead – hit by cuts of more than 40%.
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The north has experienced a decade of territorial injustice due to austerity, after experiencing the generational collateral damage of territorial injustice due to deindustrialisation in the 1980s – neither of which they voted for. But the worry for these areas is that they may well have committed the double whammy of voting for their own demise and further territorial injustice in the form of another Conservative Government and also Brexit. It is a protest vote but, paradoxically, a vote for the party that they should be protesting against.
And that is the greatest tragedy of all. Northern communities are justifiably angry, but many voters have just voted for the very thing that they should be angry about – the Tories. And they may well have voted for the continuation of their own disenfranchisement.