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The Party Chasing Labour in the North of England

Sam Bright speaks to the founder of the Northern Independence Party about Hartlepool, Keir Starmer, and social media campaigning

Rob Hine / Flickr

The Party Chasing Labourin the North of England

Sam Bright speaks to the founder of the Northern Independence Party about Hartlepool, Keir Starmer, and social media campaigning

Labour Leader Keir Starmer is this week facing his first serious test in the job. Tomorrow’s Super Thursday elections will see voters cast their ballots in national assembly elections in Scotland and Wales, mayoral elections in England, local council contests across the UK, and a parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool.

While all these ballot battles have significance for Labour and the governing Conservative Party, particular attention has been paid to the jostle for power in the north of England and the Midlands.

This is the terrain on which Labour so resoundingly lost the 2019 General Election – the so-called ‘Red Wall’ of former industrial seats that were flipped by the Conservatives, many for the first time in decades.

To win a majority at the next general election, Starmer’s party needs to win 124 seats and increase its number of MPs by more than 60% – a feat that has never been achieved by a major political party. Labour’s future success therefore depends on more than a few dozen Red Wall seats in the Midlands and the north. It must hold its city strongholds, make an imprint on Scotland and park its tanks in the Conservative-dominated south of England.

However, Labour’s Red Wall regression has more potency than other electoral challenges. It violates the rules of British politics and, in turn, has stoked an identity crisis in the modern Labour Party – one that has fuelled a gleeful feeding frenzy among the country’s right-wing press. The Conservative Party, with its brand of big state Brexit nationalism, is harvesting votes in Labour territory: working-class, small town seats ravaged by Thatcherism and austerity.

Yet any prospect of a Labour resurgence has been kicked in the groin by a new poll from Hartlepool, released on Tuesday by Survation for ITV’s Good Morning Britain. By-election polling is notoriously unreliable, and the polling was conducted prior to Johnson’s recent ‘cash for curtains’ cronyism scandal. However, even taking into account a large margin of error, Labour’s prospects look gloomy.

If the Survation poll is to be believed, the Conservatives will win the seat – which has been in the charge of the Labour Party since its creation in 1974 – by a 17-point margin.

But the Conservative Party’s historic support in Hartlepool was not the only feature of Survation’s poll that speaks to Labour’s problems in the north. Running in third place, according to the survey, is former Labour MP Thelma Walker – listed as an independent but a member of the nascent Northern Independence Party – polling at a respectable 6%.

The UK has a long and glorious history of comical political candidates. Count Binface is currently standing for election as London Mayor, taking his lead from Lord Buckethead, who famously ran against former Prime Minister Theresa May in her Maidenhead constituency at the 2017 General Election.

Many people have sought to place the Northern Independence Party in this category: a fundamentally unserious party preaching a wild political fantasy. Yet such a blithe, dismissive attitude towards the Northern Independence Party risks neglecting any strategies or policies that may be borrowed from this distinctly modern movement.

“The north-south divide is the biggest development challenge that the UK faces,” says Philip Proudfoot, who founded the party in November 2020. “It’s never been front and centre of Labour policy, the Tories are trying to occupy that ground with the fob-off ‘levelling up’ agenda. If Labour is not going to take the issue seriously, and is instead going to wave Union flags and pander to their imaginary vision of the north, then there has to be a democratic socialist position that says the north-south divide can only be addressed through serious, progressive policies.”

I spoke to Proudfoot, a former Labour supporter, a couple of weeks ago – prior to the release of the Survation poll.

Since its conception, the Northern Independence Party has mobilised most of its support on Twitter, amassing a following of more than 60,000 people – leading to claims, rejected by Proudfoot, that it is merely a social media movement.

“It’s because of Twitter that we exist,” Proudfoot says. “We’re a digital party because digital technology is democratising. We couldn’t afford to rent an office or hire staff, but we can have a Slack and a Discord. We started on a WhatsApp group. But the fact is we’re also a digital party because there’s a pandemic.”

The tone of the party, even on its official channel, is irreverent. It is happy to post memes mocking rival candidates and to generally stoke controversy. This has been “entirely deliberate”, Proudfoot says.

“The fact is, if we hadn’t adopted this approach, you wouldn’t be talking to me, and we wouldn’t be running Thelma in Hartlepool. We dismantle sneering attacks with humour, and it really works.”

A screengrab from Twitter.

One particularly lucrative strategy has been to run a series of crowdfunding campaigns, in response to what the party perceives as snobbery from well-known Twitter commentators. This tactic has earned the party a decent stream of income, with the commentator in question named on the campaign and notified when it has been completed.

The party’s branding has also attracted attention and scrutiny. The distinctive burgundy and yellow logo is based on the historic flag of Northumbria, the northern regions that formed from the merged kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia in the 7th Century, set against a silhouette of a whippet – a dog commonly associated with the north of England.

“We did it to take the p*ss out of Blue Labour [a socially conservative Labour pressure group],” Proudfoot says, when I asked him why they chose a whippet, which some people have criticised as being patronising towards the north. “They’ve spent the past year patronising the north using flags, so we thought it was a good joke.”

This chimes with the Northern Independence Party’s apparent desire to project an image of the north that both mocks and defies stereotypes.

“People’s ideas of the north have been determined by London. Nigel Farage for a long time has been the media’s substitute for an authentic northerner – but he’s not,” Proudfoot asserts. “The north is often seen as a conservative backwater, but the reality is that modern populist movements have been born in the south and exported to the north…

“Left-wing figures have even parroted the idea that people in the north are bigots who wear flat caps and drink gravy. We call it the ‘fictional northerner’, because it’s a caricature that doesn’t exist.”

Under New Management

The contrast with the Labour Party in its current incarnation could barely be more striking. Starmer’s party is instinctively cautious and moderate. Aside from the issue of Government cronyism, on which it has adopted more forceful rhetoric in recent weeks, Labour has been a self-proclaimed “constructive” opposition for the last year.

Perhaps this is Labour’s attempt to steer away from the perceived radicalism of the Jeremy Corbyn era, but the party’s tone has often been tentative and technocratic. In mid-February, Starmer delivered a speech that was intended to set the tempo of the party’s upcoming election effort. The title track of this address was the idea of a “British Recovery Bond” to fuel a national, post-pandemic economic resurgence.

As former Corbyn spokesperson Matt Zarb-Cousin tweeted after this policy announcement: “We live in an attention economy. What you say, and how you say it, is as important as the substance of what you’re putting forward. If a tree falls in the woods with no one around, does it make a sound? If a policy is announced but it doesn’t cut through, was it even announced?”

Labour ‘under new management’ is perhaps offending fewer people, but it also seems to be inspiring fewer.

In contrast, the Northern Independence Party proposes various eye-grabbing ideas, ranging from a 15% pay increase for NHS workers, to the scrapping of tuition fees and the cancelling of student debt.

These policies may not ripe for Labour to pluck. However, they epitomise the mode of politics that is effective in 21st Century Britain – involving bold, easy to remember ideas that harness sympathy towards popular interest groups. They are policies modelled on Boris Johnson’s “£350 million a week for the NHS” Brexit pledge, yet marshalled by the left.

As noted, there are many criticisms of the Northern Independence Party – some valid, some less so. Proudfoot, an academic, has frequently been chided for living in Brighton. “If only there was a party that sought to address that problem,” he says, wryly, pointing out that jobs and wealth are concentrated in the south-east of England.

The race in Hartlepool may be tighter than anticipated, due to the ongoing controversy over Johnson’s £200,000 Downing Street flat refurbishment, and so there is also a distinct possibility that the Northern Independence Party may split the left-wing vote and help to deliver victory for Conservative candidate Jill Mortimer.

However, in Proudfoot’s view, this is an attack that should be levelled at the Labour Party. “That criticism doesn’t work,” he says – pointing out that Starmer wouldn’t be worried about the Northern Independence Party, if the constituency hadn’t shifted so markedly away from Labour in recent years.

Another brick in the Red Wall looks set to fall, yet Labour’s problems in the north mount ever higher.

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