BARRY WINTER, chair of the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, explains why he’s changed his mind about a northern assembly and argues that regional devolution can play its part in an ethical socialism for our times.
Let’s begin with a confession. When the idea of regional devolution was being discussed in the party nearly a decade ago, I was not persuaded.
I recall listening to an old Labour party comrade, Jim Roche, who had been an active trade unionist in Leeds tailoring as well as a leading member of the Communist Party for many years, extolling the importance of extending democracy in this way.
Here was a man whose life had been devoted to radical politics; a man who had fought the Blackshirts on the city’s streets, enthusing about this constitutional reform.
Here was the man who told me that – on joining the Labour Party – he stayed silent at meetings for six months to better understand how people talked about politics. Needless, to say I did not show such wisdom or self-control. Here was a man who was widely trusted and respected but he could not persuade me to support his argument.
My reasons were quite simple. Devolution just seemed like adding another tedious layer of government and bureaucracy to politics and for very little gain. I feared that many of the same conservative, if not complacent, Labour people who became councillors would then sit in the regional assembly and that did not seem very inspiring.
I was not alone. You may recall that in 2004 the vote in the North East, that part of the UK where it was felt most likely to support devolution, was decisive. Of the 48% of the electorate who voted, 78% said ‘No’. One leading opponent described the whole thing as a ‘white elephant’ and most agreed.
So what has changed? Why now have I come to the conclusion that this is a worthwhile venture after all?
One major difference this time is that – with the Hannah Mitchell Foundation – this is very much a grass roots initiative. It is not top-down policy, still less the result of a deal struck among party leaders. Moreover, we are very aware that to get anywhere we have to begin to win hearts and minds, not simply votes.
Today, the first challenge is to persuade people in and around the Labour movement of the value of regional assembly in the north. That would then provide the necessary basis on which to take the argument to the wider society, hopefully in association with like-minded campaigns elsewhere.
If we achieve a growing measure of public support then a regional assembly stands a better chance of being more responsive and, hopefully, more dynamic. It will begin life with living links with different organisations and communities who will keep it on its toes.
Of course, none of this is likely to happen very quickly but it does offer a positive direction of travel. While predicting politics in these turbulent times is not easy, it is wiser to assume we that have a long way to go and a lot to learn in the process.
That said, a large part of the credit for my rethinking about devolution is down to Paul’s vision. For me, one thing that makes the Hannah Mitchell Foundation quite special is that it looks both forwards and backwards. We can draw sustenance from our own history. We are honouring the memories of earlier women and men who, against the odds, fought for a better world, Hannah Mitchell among them. It was tough then and it will tough again. What I can say is that we are starting out with good heart in spite of the challenges.
Awareness of our history is important. We live in an era of political amnesia; the past is a forgotten place, not least among the young. So while I am delighted when young people become active in campaigns like the Occupy movement, they often know little or nothing about earlier struggles. They have to learn from us and we have to learn from them.
I recently asked a class of second year social science students what they knew about Apartheid. Only one was able to respond, and her family comes from Iran. On another occasion, a second year sociology student asked: “Barry, what’s all this talk about the fall of the Berlin Wall?” To be fair, she was one-year-old at the time.
But without shared memories we are in danger of building our politics upon the sand. Our history has to inspire and inform – and that should always mean arguing over its significance and the lessons to be learned. History is always a ‘contested domain’.
We also have to overcome New Labour’s attempted erasure of the party’s history in its rebranding exercise. In every sense, New Labour was very much a ‘product’ of its times. Instead, we need more substance, to build upon our foundations, recognising warts and all. Credit to Paul for weaving that awareness into what the foundation seeks to achieve.
The north-south divide
To return to the question about what is different today that makes devolution very significant, I’d suggest we simply take a look around us. Most of us will be aware of the news about the growing north-south divide as the coalition’s austerity package continues to make life harder for the majority. We also know, the worst is yet to come.
Much of this has been published recently in the Observer and the Guardian (and even the Yorkshire Post) from which we gained some useful publicity. The think tank, IPPR in the North, has done an excellent job here and we hope we can work with them in the future. The details they provide make grim reading: for example job losses in the north, where there is a greater dependence on the public sector, are four times higher than in the south.
Dave Anderson, MP for Blaydon, wrote in his local newspaper: “Thousands of construction jobs have gone, 19,000 fewer women are in work and youth employment has fallen by nearly one-third. In 23 out of 30 parliamentary constituencies in the north east more children are living in poverty than the national average, with a shocking 39% in Middlesbrough alone.”
He also points out that this is being compounded by the coalition’s treatment of local authorities: large cuts in the north, alongside increases for parts of the south. I’d also add to that the scrapping of regional development agencies only makes matters worse.
To date, Dave Anderson has not been an ardent supporter of devolution but he does say this: “I wouldn’t rule out northern devolution if it could allow us to make a better case for a fair strategy of renewal that reduces and closes the north-south gap.”
For me, that is a major reason why we now need a regional assembly. We need some clout. An assembly offers us the chance to fight our own corner in national politics more effectively. The aim would be to ensure the region has the powers to make strategic interventions – something now well beyond the remit of local authorities. These interventions in the economy could possibly include Maurice Glassman’s ideas about regional banking, as well as others for improving regional infrastructure. This is about wresting power from above.
We need many imaginative ways to draw on people’s ideas of what can be done in this respect and so we must encourage a series of dialogues about regeneration. That means unlocking the potential that already exists among us but which seldom gets any encouragement or opportunity to gain a hearing.
New political settlement
Of course, there is another important development that must be taken into account: the future shape of the UK itself. I am not in favour of the break-up of Britain. But we do need a new constitutional settlement which includes devolution as part of any new political deal. If Scotland does become independent at some time in the future, then the need for a strong northern voice will become increasingly urgent. In saying this I am not being anti the south. There is plenty of poverty and hardship there too and it has a history of political struggles that should be part of our political memories.
However, in an England even more dominated by the Tories and their friends in the City, in banking and finance, and in big business, we desperately need strong, countervailing forces. Campaigns are important but devolution would provide an institutional basis for resisting the neglect and subordination of the north.
For these reasons, I want to suggest the importance of strengthening the voice of the north, of linking its struggles to the rest of the UK and beyond. Devolution of this kind is not about isolationism or insularity. Rather it is the opportunity and the means to reach out to others with whom we share common aspirations for social justice and greater equality.
To sum up, it is one of my firmly held views that we live in an increasingly inter-dependent world, at the personal, family, community, national and international levels. For that, we need institutions, values and beliefs that recognise this truth. That means building an ethical socialism for our times, just as earlier activists did in their times. Without human solidarity we become isolated and easy to victimise.
We have to find ways to counter the dog-eat-dog culture of capitalism. Our values don’t give us all the answers, still less a monopoly of the truth, but they give us a starting point. They indicate ways forward, ways to measure and critically scrutinise what we are trying to achieve and our own conduct. They can then provide the basis for any attempt to rebalance democracy and to regenerate the northern economy. To do that, people in the north need and deserve a much stronger and clearer voice.
And if, in the process, we manage to restore some hope and trust in the politics of social justice, to continue the work of Hannah Mitchell and my late comrade Jim Roche, then it will not have been in vain.
This is the text of a talk given to Colne Valley Labour Party on 17 February.
For more about the Hannah Mitchell Foundation, click here.