A new organisation – the Hannah Mitchell Foundation – has been formed to campaign for elected regional government for the North. The political shape of the United Kingdom is changing rapidly. The debate over Scottish independence is only the most obvious sign of a major shift, together with last year’s overwhelming vote for more powers to be given to the Welsh Government. In addition to Scotland and Wales, both Northern Ireland and London have substantial devolved powers. Which leaves the English regions. Some cities are having referenda on elected mayors, and police commissioners are to be voted for later this year. But it leaves some very big gaps and the continued dominance of centralised ‘London’ government.
As well as a democratic deficit, there is increasing evidence that the ‘North-South Divide’ is back with a vengeance. Research by IPPR North has shown a widening social and economic divide within England. The North is experiencing higher unemployment, more business failures, lower life expectancy and less investment in basic infrastructure such as transport, according to the Observer.
So far the project has attracted mixed views; some politicians who supported calls for regional devolution in the last Labour Government have yet to recover from the disastrous 2004 referendum in the North-east which sent a very clear ‘No thanks’ to Tony Blair and John Prescott. It was seen as another layer of bureaucracy with little power. Devolution in Wales and Scotland was still in its infancy and had yet to prove itself.
The Hannah Mitchell Foundation has drawn lessons from the 2004 experience. There are good arguments for looking at ‘the North’ as a whole and include Yorkshire, the North-East and North-West in a ‘super-region’ which could have powers similar to those enjoyed by the Scots. This should emphatically not be about taking power away from the local level, but gaining a range of powers from Whitehall and Westminster.
The slide into serious economic decline will not be reversed by under-resourced local authorities on their own, and there is a desperate need for strategic intervention at the regional level – on transport infrastructure, economic development and other areas, to develop a vibrant Northern economy. The regional development agencies have been abolished by the Coalition Government leaving regions like the North even more vulnerable. A pan-Northern regional development agency, as part of an elected Northern Assembly, would make a huge and positive difference.
Nobody would under-estimate the difficulty of moving towards regional government for the North, or for that matter other English regions. Yet the need to counter, on the one hand, the economic and political dominance of the south-east, and the increasingly confident and autonomous Scots and Welsh, is becoming increasingly clear. An ‘English Parliament’ is not the answer to the North’s problems, since it would only reflect and consolidate existing inequalities. The North needs its own voice, as part of a more democratic England within the United Kingdom. We hope other English regions will want to go down the same road – but that is for them to decide.
The Hannah Mitchell Foundation has been formed primarily to campaign within the Labour Movement for a new approach to regionalism which learns the lessons from past struggles and moves forward. As the momentum for regional devolution gathers momentum, we recognise that a wider, cross-party and more widely representative organisation will be needed. Scotland had its ‘Constitutional Convention’ which brought politicians, business leaders, voluntary and faith organisations together. In due course the North will need something like this – perhaps ‘A Council for the North’?
In the meantime, we see our role as gathering support within the centre-left. We are becoming a forum for the development of a distinctive democratic socialism in the North, rooted in our ethical socialist traditions of mutuality, co-operation, community and internationalism. Our focus will be to build the case for directly-elected regional government for the North of based on the principles of democracy and subsidiarity, social equity and justice, and sustainable development.
The Foundation is named in memory of an outstanding Northern socialist, feminist and co-operator, Hannah Mitchell, who was proud of her working class roots and had a cultural as well as political vision. Her autobiography, The Hard Way Up, was published posthumously and is a very honest outline of her life and politics. She was born in rural North Derbyshire in 1871 and moved as a young girl to Bolton, where she became involved in the socialist movement and read Blatchford’s Clarion newspaper. She went on to become an accomplished speaker and activist for the fledgling Independent Labour Party. She got involved in the women’s suffrage movement and campaigned across Lancashire, Yorkshire and the North-East. Her socialism was of the ethical, humanistic kind which became so popular across the North where the ILP was strongest. This kind of politics, in her words:
attracted a type of socialist who was not satisfied with the stark materialism of the Marxist school, desiring warmth and colour in human lives: not just bread, but bread and roses, too. Perhaps we were not quite sound on economics as our Marxian friends took care to remind us, but we realised the injustice and ugliness of the present system. We had enough imagination to visualise the greater possibility for beauty and culture in a more justly ordered state. If our conception of Socialism owed more to Morris than to Marx, we were none the less sincere, and many found their belief strengthened by the help and inspiration of the weekly meetings held in these Northern towns.” (The Hard Way Up, p 116).
She was a very practical activist, becoming a councillor in Manchester representing the working class ward of Newton Heath. In The Hard Way Up she mentions one of her proudest achievements being the public wash house which she struggled to get built to make working class women’s lives that bit easier. Her desire for ‘beauty in civic life’ blossomed in her work on public libraries, parks and gardens. During the 1920s she became a regular correspondent for the ILP paper Labour’s Northern Voice. She wrote dialect sketches as ‘Daisy Nook’, poking fun at petty injustice and arguing the case for socialism in a light, accessible style which was quintessentially ‘Northern’. She is an inspiration for us today.
It’s very early days, but the Foundation has already attracted lots of interest and could become the catalyst for a new approach to progressive regional politics.
Paul Salveson is General Secretary of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation.