The northern powerhouse is one among the latest wave of political narratives attempting to spark the imagination of the electorate. Other than ‘austerity’, no narrative has as successfully captured the public mood since the days of New Labour.
This aspiration can become a substantial rallying call for the long-neglected residents of the north – one around jobs, infrastructure and a stronger economy. Theresa May’s ministry has failed to embrace George Osborne’s legacy. Labour must take this opportunity with both hands, as failure to do so will open a gap for the United Kingdom Independence party and add another nail into the coffin of the credibility of the political establishment.
The beauty is that the ingredients of the northern powerhouse are simple, its concept tangible, and we can clearly hammer the concept through both our policy and messaging.
The importance of projecting a clear message for the morth cannot be understated. As Andy Burnham correctly concluded, the northern powerhouse has greater importance with impending Brexit. Beyond the £320m lost in European Union structural funds in Greater Manchester, the EU is the north’s largest trading partner handling over half its trade. On top of this, the north suffers from lacklustre productivity, with a 13 per cent deficit in gross value added to the national average. Labour needs to create a snowball of increasing productivity and inward direct investment; we can achieve this with deliberate and holistic strategic planning with the available resources.
Beyond the practical benefits for the people of the north, the powerhouse provides a political tool for Labour. The Brexit result was also a wakeup call to how we are failing to make our values relevant to a large swathe of the population in the north. This is particularly true in Cumbia, Yorkshire and the North East where Ukip support is strong. Ukip’s ongoing transformation from a single-issue party post-Farage is an alarming concern, for far too long we have been complacent about our stronghold in the north, and today we risk sowing the seeds for a viable outlet for opposition in areas that were scorned by Margaret Thatcher.
The ambition to do things differently in the north is not new, John Prescott championed the ill-fated Northern Way collaboration between the three regional development agencies during the last Labour government. While it was the Tories that ultimately culled the project, there are important lessons to be derived. As surmised in its final report, the project failed to communicate its aims, symptomatic of the technocratic RDAs.
The introduction of metro mayors across large parts of the north provide an important singular voice to lead a Labour northern powerhouse and project a winning formula for the party to regain national trust.
Labour can take inspiration from another European poly-centric region to avoid the mistakes of the past. From the Dutch Regio Ramstad we take the idea founding a deliberative ‘cabinet of the north’. The new metro mayors will give us a pantheon of champions to make this happen, and overcome the flaws of the Northern Way; they can steer cooperative planning, attracting private investment, articulate the vision with clear messaging, and build upwards across the region out of the reach of the Tory national government.
Labour must stay united and support a diverse group of metro mayors – Labour councils have already stopped the plans for the North East Combined Authority. Our cabinet of the north must be clear on what it wants to do, to become greater than the sum of its parts, and be able to show the people of the north a concrete plan on what to achieve in the first 100 days, the first year, five years. We must articulate a vision of quality jobs, homes and infrastructure and opportunity for a generation to aspire to.
Alexander Adranghi is former national chair of the Young Fabians. He tweets @alexadranghi
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